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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I quite liked the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I enjoyed being back in the world of Harry Potter (what has now been dubbed “The Wizarding World”), and I thought the film was fun if a little slight.  (It was a gentler, more meandering tale than the last few Harry Potter films, which were darker and more intense.)  I wouldn’t say I LOVED the film, but I was eager for the story to continue in the next of five planned films.

The trailers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were intriguing, but also raised some alarm bells for me.  This new film looked a lot more epic and a lot darker than the first Fantastic Beasts — this excited me.  The trailers played up this film’s connections to the broader Harry Potter mythology — Dumbledore, Hogwarts, the human form of Nagini, etc.  This also excited me.  But mostly absent from the trailers were the foursome who were the focus of the first Fantastic Beasts film: the sisters Tina and Queenie, the “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski, and Newt Scamander himself.  This worried me.  Was this second film abandoning these characters?  I doubted it would, but then I worried that they would they be in the film but overshadowed by all of the more exciting mythology, the Dumbledore-versus-Grindelwald stuff.  Would Newt & co. be unnecessary and boring in their own film?  Would I wish that Dumbledore was the main character, rather than Newt?

Having now seen the film, I can say a few things:

First off, I quite enjoyed it.  I thought it was, overall, a stronger film than I’d been expecting based on the early reviews.

Second, the film feels very much of a piece with the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I’d worried this film was going to be a major course correction from the first film, but in fact it continues nicely from the first Fantastic Beasts in terms of tone and style.

Third, I had expected that the film would be structured with Newt & co. going on a series of adventures that I’d find somewhat entertaining but not as much fun as the “good stuff” of the mythology revelations and spectacle that I expected in the film’s climax.  In fact, I was very taken by the film’s first three-fourths, and all of that adventuring by Newt & co., while I found the film’s last thirty-or-so minutes to be head-spinningly confusing, overstuffed with exposition describing IMPORTANT REVELATIONS that I felt weren’t sufficiently explained nor were their repercussions sufficiently explored (the latter being a task, presumably, held for the next film).

OK, let’s dig in.

I was pleased that, contrary to how the film was being advertised, the big-four of the first Fantastic Beasts film all were very important and had a lot to do here in The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is important throughout the story (well, until those last 30-or-so minutes, where he suddenly becomes mostly extraneous in his own film, oops), and his skill with and knowledge of magical creatures serves him well again and again.  Considering that the main title of this new series of films is Fantastic Beasts, I was happy that we got to see a lot of new magical creatures here in this film, as well as a variety of familiar ones such as the Kniffler and the Bowtruckle “Picket.”  I liked the way Newt’s “I don’t do sides” mantra sets him up as a very different kind of hero than was Harry Potter.

After getting obliviated at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts, I worried that Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) wouldn’t be involved in this sequel, but thankfully he was.  And thankfully, they undid that memory-wiping immediately.  (That bugged me about the ending of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and I’m glad they didn’t waste any time in reversing that plot-twist here.)  I liked the way this film picked up his and Queenie’s romantic relationship, and I enjoyed the twists and turns their story took.

Speaking of Queenie (Alison Sudol), she was a remarkable discovery in the first Fantastic Beasts, and I enjoyed the way they further developed her here.  Her character was all bubbles and light in the first film, and I was intrigued to see the way this sequel took her to some dark places.  This begins from the first moment we see her again, as we discover that she’s enchanted Jacob.  The film allows us to fully understand why she did that, and the loving place it came from, but still, her willingness to rob Jacob of his consent was a dark turn, and she follows that by making some surprising — but understandable and (for the most part) well-developed — choices as the film progresses.  (More on this below.)

Tina (Kate Waterston) gets a bit of the short shrift here.  She spends the first half of the film operating under a ridiculous misconception about Newt, and while she is now an Auror in good-standing, doing important work searching for Credence, she doesn’t actually accomplish much of anything during the film.  Still, Mrs. Waterston is wonderful, and I loved seeing her back in this role.  The film doesn’t rush the development of her and Newt’s romantic relationship (if anything, I’m annoyed that the film never paid off Tina and Newt’s tender moment among the family archives that was interrupted by the arrival of Leta).  But I loved the way Ms. Waterston and Mr. Redmayne played their scenes together.  I’d like to see this relationship progress in the next film, since as of now they’re at exactly the same point they were at the end of film one.

Ezra Miller returns as the disturbed, powerful Credence Miller.  Credence somehow survived the ending of the first Fantastic Beasts, though we never learn how.  I love Mr. Miller and I’m pleased to see him back in a role that, by the film’s final scene, is turning out to be of central importance to this new cycle of films.  I just wish that we’d actually arrived at concrete answers as to who exactly Credence is by the time the credits rolled.  More on this below, when we start getting into spoiler territory.

The villain, Grindelwald is, of course, played by Johnny Depp.  I was less than enthused by this revelation at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts.  I’d still prefer to see Colin Farrel in the role.  But I’m pleased that Mr. Depp is actually pretty solid in the role.  His makeup is still too crazy (though it has, thankfully, been toned down from what we saw at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts), but Mr. Depp resists the temptation to go too over the top with the character.  He keeps Grindelwald quiet, silky and menacing.  The revelations at the film’s end about Grindelwald’s motivations are great, and I’m pleased that the film gives Grindelwald a grounded, defensible position for his abhorrent actions.  This makes him a more effective bad-guy.  However, I think the film made a mistake waiting until the very end to give us this important information about the main villain.  As with Credence, more on this below when we dig into the spoilers.

In addition to these six returning characters, the film introduces a lot of new characters.  Too many, in fact.  This is where The Crimes of Grindelwald starts to get into problems.  The film has about twelve major characters, by my count, which is far too many.  As a result, most of these characters are not nearly as developed as they needed to be.  These characters are all interesting, and they’re all played by great actors, but none of them get enough attention, which is a big reason why I didn’t think the film’s ending landed as powerfully as it should have.

Let’s start with Jude Law as Young Dumbledore.  I do quite like the idea of involving a young Dumbledore in these new stories, and Jude Law is absolutely perfect in the role.  He brings Dumbledore’s warmth and intelligence and fierce competence, and the twinkle in his eye.  I loved learning that Dumbledore had been involved in setting Newt’s journey in the first film in motion.  I was pleased to finally see an on-screen reference to Dumbledore’s homosexuality (something that J.K. Rowling revealed after the original Harry Potter books had been completed), though I wish it had been more front-and-center.  As was the case with most of the original Harry Potter films, I wish we’d gotten to see a lot more of Dumbledore.

We get to meet Newt’s brother Theseus in this film (he was mentioned as being a “war hero” in the first Fantastic Beasts), played by Callum Turner.  We also get to meet Newt’s former flame Leta Lestrange (we saw that Newt kept a photo of her in the first Fantastic Beasts), played by Zoë Kravitz.  Both actors are great, and I’m pleased to see both characters appearing in this film after getting hinted at in the first one.  But neither are developed the way I wanted them to be.  More below.

Harry Potter fans were all atwitter when they learned that Voldemort’s snake Nagini would appear as a human character in this film.  I was very intrigued by this new character, played by Claudia Kim, though (are you sensing a pattern here?) I wish we’d gotten more deeply into her character.  It’s terribly sad to think that she winds up with Voldemort in the end.  (Despite her making the right choice at the end of this film, unlike her friend Credence who chooses to join Grindelwald.)

There’s also Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a French-Senegalese wizard who imprisons Tina but whose complex backstory might mean that he is actually on Tina and Newt’s side.  The character is intriguing (and Mr. Nadylam delivers a long, expository speech at the end of the film with aplomb) but, say it with me now, I wish we’d gotten to know more about him.

It was a delight to see Nicolas Flamel in the flesh, played by Brontis Jodorowsky.  Flamel was an intriguing character from the very first Harry Potter book, about whom I’d always felt there was a lot more to learn.  (I still feel that way, but it was great fun to see him alive here.)

Other new characters introduced in the film are: Newt’s assistant, a sweet young woman named Bunty (Victoria Yeates); Grindelwald’s hench-people Vinda Rosier and Krall (the latter of whom Grindelwald kills at the end of the film because… Krall’s only other line of dialogue in the film, much earlier, was questioning Grindelwald?  If there was a story here, it’s on the cutting room floor); and Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (played by The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams), a wizard (whose name I had to look up after the movie) who Flamel contacts through a book at a key moment (but about whom the movie tells us nothing).  Also, returning from Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them are Seraphina Picquery, the President of MACUSA (Carmen Ejogo) as well as MACUSA worker Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie), now suddenly (and inexplicably) a henchman of Grindelwald.

Whew!  On the one hand, I love the film’s boldness in fitting in all of these characters, and how this allows the film to feel alive with J.K. Rowling’s imagination and the vast depth of this world she’s created.  On the other hand, that’s just way too many characters.  And because the film chooses, so often, to keep characters’ true backstories and motivations a secret from the audience, it means that the film winds up feeling far more superficial than it should.

On the plus side, the film looks absolutely gorgeous.  This is director David Yates’ fifth Potter-universe film in a row, and he returns along with so many other key collaborators of the previous films, including cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, composer James Newton Howard, and costume designer Colleen Atwood (all returning from the first Fantastic Beasts), as well as production designer Stuart Craig (who has been with the series since the very first Harry Potter film) and Steve Kloves (who wrote the adaptations of all but one of the Harry Potter films, and who served as a producer on both Fantastic Beasts films), and many others.  The films’ costumes, sets, and props are all absolutely gorgeously and beautifully realized.  The visual effects are extraordinary, bringing to life all sorts of amazing wizarding effects (there’s a lot of apparating in this film, and it all looks absolutely dynamite); magical creatures (all of which are gorgeously designed and completely convincing on-screen); exploding buildings, and all kinds of other craziness.  This is a BIG film and it is all realized on an impressively epic scale.  I recently rewatched the first Harry Potter film, and it’s astounding how far this series has come, visually, since it began.  What they are able to realize on-screen now is truly jaw dropping.

A few other thoughts, before we dive into spoiler territory:

* When I first read that all five of these Fantastic Beasts films would take place in a different city, I wasn’t wild about the idea.  It felt arbitrary, and I worried it’d make this series feel episodic and random.  The good news is that, so far, that isn’t the case.  The bad news is that I didn’t feel The Crimes of Grindelwald took advantage of its Paris setting.  Other than a brief, intriguing visit to the French Ministry of Magic, I hardly noticed that this film was set in Paris.  It could easily have been in London or New York (like the last film).

* I loved seeing a young Minerva McGonagall at Hogwarts, along with Dumbledore!

OK, we have to dig into the ending, so if you’ve made it this far but haven’t yet seen the film, STOP NOW.  SPOILERS ahead, y’hear?

So.  The ending.

We get a TON of exposition dropped on our heads in the last thirty-or-so minutes of the film, filled with one head-spinning revelation after another.  There’s a lot of great stuff here, and I suspect that 1) some of this will make more sense upon a repeat viewing, and 2) a lot of this will make more sense once J.K. Rowling’s planned five-film series has been completed.  But here and now, I am left with a lot of questions.  Some of these are, I suspect, things we’re meant to understand but that the film didn’t explain adequately for me, while others are things meant to still be secret/mysterious for now.  I understand that J.K. Rowling and David Yates & co. are playing the long game here, and that this is film two in a five-film series.  But I need each individual film to be satisfying.  I don’t mind cliffhangers.  (Example: Avengers: Infinity War ends on a GINORMOUS cliffhanger.  But, nevertheless, it felt like a complete and fully satisfying film to me, in a way that The Crimes of Grindelwald does not.)

Obviously, in discussing the ending, we have to start with Credence.  I felt that we never quite figured out who or what Credence was in the first Fantastic Beasts, and so I was pleased that the question of his true identity and background wound up being a central through-line here in The Crimes of Grindelwald.  But the film never really answers this question!  The last-minute revelation that he’s a sibling of Dumbledore is exciting, but also baffling.  That declaration by Grindelwald raises more questions than it answers.  This was meant to be an exciting cliffhanger to propel us into the third film.  But since I spent two-plus hours of THIS film expecting an answer to this question, the film’s failure to provide that answer was disappointing.

Also, the whole business of Credence’s maybe being Corvus Lestrange was very confusing to me.  I’m an attentive movie-watcher and I’ve seen all of the Harry Potter movies but, gasp, I haven’t read all the books.  (My daughters and I are currently reading them together, and we’re almost done with book five.)  So while I of course know of the Lestrange family (and I am attentive enough to catch the comment about a family tree that only includes the men to be a reference to Sirius Black’s family tree, as seen in Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix), I didn’t remember hearing of Corvus before, and I wasn’t sure why many characters in the movie felt that Credence was probably this Corvus Lestrange.  Where did everyone seem to get that idea?  It wasn’t mentioned in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  (Also, while we’re talking about Corvus, I got confused by some of the movie’s references to Corvus, and only after doing some reading on-line after the movie did I discover that, apparently, Leta Lestrange’s father AND missing brother were BOTH named Corvus!  Sheesh!!)  Getting back to Credence, the movie tells us, if I am understanding things correctly, that Credence both IS and ISN’T Leta’s brother Corvus.  He isn’t because Leta switched babies on the boat, so the boy who left the shipwreck with them wasn’t actually her true brother Corvus.  But he is, because this boy who everyone ELSE thought was Corvus WAS in fact the boy who grew up to be Credence.  Do I have that right?  This “he is and he isn’t” answer feels 1) too confusing and 2) too much of a wishy-washy “have your cake and eat it too” answer to the mystery.  Plus, the film doesn’t tell us what happened to this baby (Credence, who everyone else thinks is Corvus) after that shipwreck, so we still don’t know how he came to be abandoned and adopted by the crazy, wizard-hating Mary Lou Barebone.  We also don’t know who the baby was BEFORE Leta’s baby-switching — how was this a Dumbledore sibling who Albus Dumbledore never knew about (assuming he never knew about him, which I suspect is the case, but one more thing the film withholds from us is exactly what Albus Dumbledore does/doesn’t know about Credence), and how did the baby come to be on that boat, and what exactly caused that suspicious shipwreck, anyways?

While we’re at it, why did baby Corvus, a boy, appear on the female family tree that Leta showed the gang?  What did I miss there?

On the Grindelwald side of things, the end of the film shows us that Grindelwald’s actions are, at least in part, motivated by a vision of the horrors of World War II.  That’s a great motivation for this villain — that he knows what will happen if the Muggles are left in charge, and he thinks that wizards can run the world far better.  I loved that.  But, first of all, I don’t understand why this aspect of Grindelwald’s backstory was kept a secret until the very end of the film.  Wouldn’t it have been better for us to know why he was doing what he was doing as we were watching the film unfold?  Similarly, the film waits until the very end to explain why Dumbledore couldn’t/wouldn’t take direct action against Grindelwald — because the two had made a blood pact together.  But, again, wouldn’t it have been better for us to know this from the beginning, to be able to see Dumbledore’s anguish at being forced to the sidelines, and to prevent my asking to myself, ten times, why Dumbledore kept refusing to actually do anything to combat a wizard he knows to be evil?  (Also, just when/how/why did Grindelwald get that vision of the future, anyways?)

Speaking of Dumbledore and Grindelwald, I also spent the entire movie wondering how and why young Dumbledore could have ever had such a deep friendship (and possible romantic relationship) with someone as evil as Grindelwald.  I have read that apparently there is some backstory from the Harry Potter books about this, describing the rough place Dumbledore was in at that point in his life, but we really needed to see more of that here in this film.  I was aching for a flashback that could give some explanations for, and context for, Dumbledore’s connection to Grindelwald.  The whole movie pivots around this link between these two powerful wizards, deep in their past.  I really felt we needed to get more of an exploration of this backstory.  If they’re holding this for future films (as I suspect they are), I think that was a mistake.

At the end, many of our characters are faced with a choice of whether to join or fight Grindelwald.  Leta decides to oppose him and is quickly killed.  I’m a little confused as to what she thought she was doing — wasn’t it pretty clear she’d be killed instantly by stepping into that blue fire?  More importantly, her sacrifice, and Theseus’ grief at the death of his fiancé, doesn’t really land, because we hadn’t gotten to know either character well enough.  We know Newt dislikes Theseus, but whenever we see him in the film, Theseus seems like a pretty good dude.  I’d have liked to see more of his layers, his flaws and his strengths, and to explore more of what he thought about his weird brother Newt.  The film sets up a love triangle between Leta, Newt, and Theseus, but that’s never really explored.  How did it happen that Leta — whose only friend at Hogwarts was Newt — would wind up engaged to his older brother?  Did she have any thought for how that would make Newt feel?  Did she still care at all for Newt?  Meanwhile, how did it happen that square war-hero Theseus wound up involved romantically with his younger brother’s former flame, and what did he think of her dark family ties (the rest of the Lestrange family)?  How about our main character, Newt himself?  We know he loves Tina, but does he still have any feelings for Leta?  Did he want to be together with her?  Was he angry at his brother for pursuing her romantically?  Was he angry at Leta?  If so, did Newt forgive them in the end?  How did Newt feel about Leta’s sacrifice?  I can’t believe the film didn’t bother to answer any of these questions!!  All of this feels like ripe, dramatic story potential that wound up being mostly ignored by the finished film, which feels like a big waste.  (I care more about these missed character beats than I do about the plot-questions of Credence’s backstory, etc.)

Also — I loved, as I noted above, the way this film allowed Queenie to take some dark turns.  I thought it was interesting how Grindelwald used her love for the No-Maj Jacob to turn her to his side.  It is believable that Queenie would be drawn to Grindelwald.  BUT.  Wasn’t Grindelwald just manipulating her?  (Tina and Newt both state, at the end, that he was using Queenie as bait.)  How did Queenie manage to be lured into Grindelwald’s apartment by Vinda Rosier, when QUEENIE CAN READ MINDS?!!!  I feel like this key fact was forgotten in the second half of the film.  If Vinda was intending to trap Queenie, and if Grindelwald wasn’t 100% on the level (both of which I suspect were the case), wouldn’t Queenie know that immediately???

OK, it’s getting to be time to wrap this all up.

I really did quite enjoy this film.  In many ways, it was better than I expected it to be!  I love this world, I enjoy these characters, and I was pretty locked in to this fantasy adventure right from the fun and exciting opening chase scene.  But the end let me down, and that colored my feeling about the whole rest of the film.  It’s very likely that, in a few years when this story is complete, I’ll have answers to some/all of these questions and I’ll retroactively feel better about this film.  But for now, I’m let down by this oddly incomplete film.  This is the peril of today’s style of franchise-film storytelling.  I need each installment to feel complete enough to be satisfying, and The Crimes of Grindelwald wasn’t, at least not for me.  But I certainly remain eager to see where all this is going in the next installment…

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