“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Movie Review

I never ever imagined that I would start to grow tired of Rowling’s Wizarding World, but here we are in 2018. God damn it. This fantasy film from director David Yates marks the 10th overall cinematic installment of the Harry Potter Universe. Released worldwide on November 16th, 2018, the film has thus far grossed over $440 million at the box office, primarily from international markets. Domestically, it has earned less money than its predecessor, having the worst opening weekend for a Harry Potter movie, which could temper the franchise’s future for the studio. It also doesn’t help that this became the first film in the series to receive mostly negative reviews from both critics and fans. Once again written by J.K. Rowling, author of the insanely popular and beloved Harry Potter books, the second installment in the Fantastic Beasts saga is meant to set up at least three more films that are being planned. The project courted some (admittedly well-earned) controversy during its casting and marketing phase, mainly around the main antagonist and two of the side characters. Taking place about a year after the events from last time, we once again follow the magical zoologist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. While he’s away finding and studying various magical creatures, the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp, breaks out of prison and goes on a crusade encouraging wizards, particularly “pure bloods,” to rise up against non-magic humans. Scamander receives orders from Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, to track down someone who is of great interest to Grindewald in Paris. While I’ve cooled a bit on the first one since seeing it in theaters, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a film I found to be quite enjoyable and fun. I liked the way that it expanded the Wizarding World into an American context, something I had always been curious about as a huge Harry Potter fan. As more news came out about the inevitable sequel, some things deterred my excitement while others heightened it. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is easily the worst film in the whole saga thus far and the first bad film to come out of it. There are so many elements to this film that I’m still conflicted about. Whether it’s just a casting choice or a particular story path, I was left cold, disappointed, intrigued, and tortured at every turn. Is it okay to watch an alleged spousal abuser in a movie as long as he’s relegated to the role of a villain? How much control should J.K. Rowling still be give over the movies at this point? These are just a handful of questions to wrestle with through the 2 hours and 14 minutes it takes to get through the journey, which seems more interested in setting up future movies than finishing its own narrative. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander, whose continued relevance to this series is starting to come into question. He nails the socially awkward aspects of his character really well, always soft-spoken but never hesitant to stand up for what he believes. His forgettable side characters come back for another outing but they’re overshadowed by new arrivals, such as Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore. He has all the charisma and subtle intellect we’ve come to know and love from this character, whose dialogue sounds incredibly natural during his scenes. You get the feeling that there’s a lost, deeply tragic connection he has with the antagonist, which conflicts with his desire to stop his radical uprising. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s performance as Gellert Grindelwald has me conflicted in ways that are hard to describe. What he did to his ex-wife in real life is completely inexcusable and the fact that he isn’t recast is infuriating. Plus, with all of the Tim Burton-esque roles the actor has been taking on in recent years, you get the feeling that this part could have gone to anyone and no one would have been the wiser. Yet, it’s hard for me not to say that he was good as the main villain, who operates more as a political terrorist or cult leader than a world-class dictator. “We only want freedom. Freedom to be ourselves,” he says to his followers early on, and indeed he spends much of the film acting like a magical version of David Duke. His rugged charisma is a strong seducer of lost souls. And as far as the technical aspects go, The Crimes of Grindelwald seems like it was practically filmed while the cast and crew were sleepwalking. Being set in France, there are a handful of production workers behind the scenes, which is somewhat appreciated. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography looks washed out and lacking in colorful distinction between the heavy CGI and the really cool sets. The vast majority of the film uses roving shots in scenes as if to keep the momentum up, especially when something exciting might be happening. The editing done by Mark Day, who has cut together the last 6 Harry Potter films, is very drab. It doesn’t feel like enough of an oomph is given to the dramatic scenes while it drags out shots for more comedic moments. James Newton Howard returns to provide the musical score for this film, and it’s very similar to last time. You can hear little ghostly bits of the classic franchise themes by John Williams in certain tracks, especially when relating someone like Dumbledore. Some of the quieter, more warmhearted moments are given appropriate sounds, such as soft woodwinds and brass. However, it’s the more dramatic stuff where it comes into form, especially in the back half. More ominous hits of percussion, vocal chorus, and sustained string melodies make up the background for the conflict. All in all, perhaps the kindest thing one could really say about this film is that it proves the Wizarding World is indeed filled with different stories and tales worthy of the cinematic treatment. It’s a bummer, too, because the story J.K. Rowling is trying to tell here is undeniably worth being told, a part of wizard history I had always wanted to see visually. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an underwhelming, needlessly convoluted exercise in stretching out a franchise longer than it should be. As a longtime and devoted fan of the saga, both in book and movie form, I was left disenchanted by the final product. Some good performances and music, and a handful of interesting ideas presented in the film save it from awfulness. I do want to see how the rest of this story unfolds and can honestly see where Rowling and Yates are going with it. It’s just the manner in which they’re telling it is both problematic and greatly disappointing.

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