I like J.K. Rowling. I like her books. They are very engaging and easy to read. The movies that came from her books have fallen in my favor as I have grown up, if only because I have finally noticed their bare-bones (see what I did there?) approach to adaptation. But that wasn’t really her fault.
All that said, I think she has many flaws. One in particular being that she is not a good script writer.
Much like the first movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a jumble of two or three movies that are connected very loosely, in this case by Grindelwald himself. If he weren’t there, you might not think they had anything to do with one another. Important plot points, particularly some that contradict the ending of the last movie, are exposited to us after the fact rather than shown to us, which is more interesting and effective in a visual medium. We get so little time with various characters that it is hard to be fully invested or get inside their heads, so when things happen to them, it’s not nearly as powerful and meaningful as it could be.
Credence Barebone, the dorky emo bowl cut from the first movie, is still alive, and he somehow made it to France in a desperate search for his family’s identity. He finds work at a magical Parisian circus, where he soon teams up with Nagini, a girl suffering from a curse that transforms her into a snake every night, and will eventually make her unable to change back. They escape together and continue to search for Credence’s mother, and presumably a cure to their curses, all while trying to avoid the various aurors that have been sent to kill him.
Why are the Ministries of Magic (America doesn’t have ministries, Rowling. We have departments) trying to kill him? Well, aside from the damage he caused in the first movie, there are rumors that he may be the last male descendant of a pureblood wizard family, and Grindelwald is rumored to want to use him as a political tool to rally the other snooty purebloods to their side. Pureblood families have a lot of power and wealth in the wizarding community, and if you don’t remember that, well, you just wait until Malfoy’s father hears about this!
Meanwhile, Newt is newting it up in Great Britain with his menagerie of magical creatures and half-heartedly trying to refute the claim that he is Dumbledore’s errand boy. Apparently his trip to retrieve the Thunderbird from traffickers in the last movie was set in motion by Dumbledore, here played by Jude Law, and the timing of his arrival in New York just when Grindelwald began making a move was too coincidental for comfort in the eyes of the British Ministry.
Despite Newt having a travel ban placed on him, Dumbledore petitions Newt to sneak off to Paris to try and protect Credence. Newt is eventually convinced when he finds out that Tina, his crush from the first movie, is there as well, also trying to track down Credence. Also there’s some drama happening with Queenie and Jacob that brings them both to Paris, and some tension between Newt, his Ministry-employed brother, and Leta Lestrange, who is Newt’s childhood friend/crush and his brother’s fiancée. She got brought up in the last movie, but they never really went into what happened with Newt and her.
It would take too long to explain, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Once again, this movie is full of callbacks to the earlier Harry Potter movies, with the biggest one this time around being Hogwarts itself. That was nice to see again. There is some stuff in the movie that will please Potterheads and theorists, and some stuff that will make you scratch your head and strain your brain trying to remember continuity. For example, if Leta is the last of her family line, where did Bellatrix’s husband come from half a century later?
The performances are all fine. I don’t know why Johnny Depp needed to be here, but he was good enough for the kind of character he was trying to portray. Everyone else was good to serviceable. Many people complained before the move came out that Nagini was being turned from a snake into a submissive Asian woman stereotype, and how racist that was. I can certainly see where they are coming from, but I was mostly concerned with an unnecessary retcon bringing her into the story for no reason, and it seems that my prediction was true. She has no reason to be in the movie; she contributes nothing to the story or to the characters, and outside of her being pretty and “a freak like him,” I don’t know what Credence gets out of their relationship. He abandons her pretty quickly too, so she can’t have ever meant that much to him.
“Hey look everybody! She was Voldemort’s pet snake, remember?”
…Yeah, and? What was her narrative purpose for being here? And being a lady?
But what did I like about this movie? I’ve always liked Newt Scamander, but damn, he has really grown on me as a character. As I said before, he displays an almost childlike meekness when dealing with other human beings, but his compassion for his creatures is sweet and funny, and he does generally try to do the right thing, even for other people. He makes an interesting counterpoint to your typically Hollywood macho male hero. I also love Jacob as the somewhat straight man/comedic muggle sidekick (no, I will not call him a no-Maj. In a world of silly sounding words, names, and phrases, that one still manages to sound stupid). How he mostly “retained,” not regained his memories from the last movie was a blatant, lazy hand-wave, but I’m willing to ignore it if it means he’s back in the story.
I like how the movie is showing Grindelwald’s rise to power, and what draws people to his brand of leadership. Unlike Voldemort, who was a dramatic, brutish totalitarian followed entirely by assholes and cowards, Grindelwald uses manipulative rhetoric and spins his enemies’ actions to his advantage. He convinces otherwise well-meaning people to come to his side, only using fear as a garnish.
I like young Dumbledore. I’d have liked to have seen more of him and known more about his motives, but I’m used to him being mysterious, keeping everything close to the vest. He looks like a cool teacher for sure, but wasn’t he supposed to be teaching Transfiguration, not Defense Against the Dark Arts? Is that supposed to be a quiet little nod to Dumbledore’s Army?
The music is good again. It didn’t particularly stand out like the last film’s music did, but things are more dramatic and dark now, so I get why that scrubs away the personality of the 1920’s a little bit. The cinematography is great for the most part, barring that occasionally indiscernible opening fight scene during the thunderstorm. And I do wish movies would stop doing fast tracking shots over CGI backgrounds; I’ve seen these in both this film and Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and if this becomes a persistent trend, I think I might throw up in earnest one of these days.
Overall, it’s a very mixed bag. I still found most of it pretty enjoyable, but the storytelling was messy and amateurish, and it hinders what could otherwise be a great film series by splitting the focus and screen time too many ways. Few characters get enough time to shine. It was a bit disappointing from an author who has captured the hearts and imagination of millions.