Disclaimer: I’m a Harry Potter fan. I wore my Gryffindor scarf to the screening. I own well-used copies of everything by JK Rowling, and I’ve seen the play twice (go, it’s great). So, for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I had to choose: watch as a fan (surely most people have seen/read something Harry Potter?), or as a critic of a stand-alone film, as though the seven books, nine films, website, stage-play, tie-ins, and theme-parks don’t exist?
In 1927, Gellert Grindelwald (magical Hitler, with the acting stylings of Johnny Depp) escapes the Magical Congress of the United States of America. We follow lovably eccentric magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), whose primary objective is to search for and protect vulnerable magical orphan Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) from Grindelwald’s indoctrination. Acting on the instruction of an unexpectedly suave forty-five years old Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt navigates Paris and the dangerous rise of wizard-supremacy with his pals from the first film: muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), witch sisters Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Tina Goldstein (Katharine Waterston), as well as school sweetheart, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) and her fiancé/Newt’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner).
With me so far? Just about? Not really? Exactly.
The screenplay was written by novelist J.K. Rowling, and it shows. Rowling is a master of the intricately plotted novel. The Crimes of Grindelwald is an audio-visual novel – an anthology of the wider world beyond Hogwarts. Devoted fans will joyfully marvel at familiar cameos, the inner workings of the French Ministry of Magic, and all the squeal-worthy nuggets of nostalgia (I admit to getting swept up in these moments). For the fans, you cannot fault the film’s entertainment value.
Trouble is, Rowling leans too far into this and the film itself gets lost. There are at least six plots: will Grindelwald get his hands on Credence? What is Grindelwald’s ambition? Who is Credence? Who else is after Credence? Will Newt and Tina get together? What’s happening with Jacob and Queenie? Ad finitum.
Most tension comes from a worry of losing track of what on earth is going on; the objective gets lost in this beast (sorry) of a narrative. Seemingly every character (and there are a LOT of them) receives exponential development despite the three films left in the franchise. I felt for the parents staring blankly at the screen with no way to hook into the plot.
I cannot fault the visual effects, performances, or dialogue (“salamander eyes”? Charming as heck). Depp’s Grindelwald is a horrifyingly charismatic villain. Law sells the wisdom yet youthfulness of a still-developing Dumbledore. Redmayne is delightful, and Young Newt is a masterful imitator, but a stand-out is Kravitz as the intelligent but troubled Leta Lestrange as her turmoil oscillates between suppressed and overwhelming within a single close-up.
Potter fans have often wished for a Game of Thrones style in-depth exploration of the Wizarding World and unfortunately, they got their wish – just in one 135-minute, overwhelming eruption.