In more recent years, with what was previously deemed as the “nerd side” of popular culture more or less becoming one with pop culture itself, it seems more and more properties are putting a higher emphasis on world-building, in the vein of Tolkien or George Lucas. On one hand, this is a great thing, as it’s always enjoyable to see a fantasy world create a backstory for itself and its characters. But I have recently began to worry that too many works are prioritizing world-building over actual storytelling. One reason I love the Star Wars sequel trilogy is that it bucks this trend, introducing elements such as The First Order in passing without detailing how and why they came to power, and letting the story at hand take center stage. By contrast, it seems that the Harry Potter prequel franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, goes in the exact opposite direction of the Star Wars sequels, with its own narrative being drowned in backstories and lore. While the first Fantastic Beasts at least introduced us to some potentially charming franchise players, its sequel – the bizarrely titled The Crimes of Grindelwald – feels like it completely surrenders its own identity for the sake of world-building.
Like the first film, the screenplay is written by J.K. Rowling herself. Though Rowling seems to handle the material as if she’s writing the appendices of one of her books, as opposed to a screenplay. This is a film that squanders so much potential with its characters, as it feels so much more inclined to explain elements of the Wizarding World than it does in following its lead cast. It does this to such an extent that it really feels like very little actually happens within the film’s plot.
The (supposed) story still follows magi-zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his American friends; Wizarding sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), and the muggle/no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). They are all caught in the middle of a crises in the Wizarding World, as the evil wizard Grendalwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped custody, and is rallying more and more wizards to his cause of “wizard supremacy” (that is to say, wizards being superior by nature to non-magic beings). While Scamander would rather not be involved in any greater conflict and just resume his studies of magical creatures, he is persuaded by one Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to aide the future Hogwarts Headmaster’s personal attempts to weaken Grindelwald’s efforts.
That may sound like a brief summary to avoid spoilers, but the fact of the matter is the story never really evolves from that setup. To make matters worse, elements of the first Fantastic Beast film’s ending are entirely retconned for seemingly no reason other than that they allow for more convenient progression to future sequels.
Kowalski – along with other non-magic folk in New York City – had his memory of the magic world wiped clean in the first film’s finale, which served as its most emotional moment. But apparently he still remembers everything just fine, because only “bad memories” were erased, and his were mostly good. Way to undermine the first film’s emotional crescendo…
Now, it’s safe to say we all assumed Kowalski would be getting his memories back, but to more or less brush aside an important part of its predecessor’s ending so nonchalantly just demeans the franchise itself. Ironically, The Crimes of Grindelwald would have probably been a better movie if getting Kowalski’s memories of wizards and magic back were a key plot point. At the very least, the plot would have actually been about the main characters in such a scenario.
Instead, we have a plot centered around Dumbledore and Grindelwald attempting to sway Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller) – the disturbed wizard with a demonic parasite who seemingly died in the first movie – to their respective sides of the struggle. Poor Newt doesn’t even feel like the hero of his own story, rather, just a figure passing through it. That’s a real shame, because Newt – as well as Kowalski, and Tina and Queenie – were characters who were distinct from the existing heroes of the Harry Potter series (particularly Kowalski, as his status as a non-magical being wandering the Wizarding World with childlike glee makes him one of the most unique characters in Rowling’s mega-franchise). But here we are, only in the second installment of this five-part series, and already the main cast feels like an afterthought to all the other goings-on. Heaven forbid the main characters get in the way of extended monologues of events the side characters went through.
All of this could have been made more forgivable if it only started out this way. Because in all honesty, there actually is some charm left in this Wizarding World as the film opens. The first few tidbits of lore and “for hardcore fans only” dialogue are fine, since they’re setting things up. But the film only builds on these overly descriptive elements more and more as the film goes on. I wish I were joking when I say the third act of the film comes to a dead stop as one character gives an overly long monologue on some backstory, before another character butts in and delves into their own overly long monologue on some backstory. What’s worse is that certain revelations that are made with the main characters feel completely rushed and meaningless because of this (one major ‘twist’ in particular comes across as utterly lifeless, as it seemingly comes out of nowhere). Maybe Rowling should have spent a little more time writing her main characters and less on…everything else possible?
There are some redeeming qualities to the film. The costume designs and special effects still impress, and despite their tragically limited presence, the primary quartet of characters still feel like a refreshing change of pace from Harry, Ron and Hermione. The acting is also pretty solid, with Jude Law and (I hate to admit it) Johnny Depp making the most of their limited screen time (seeing Grindelwald wave his magic wand like a conductor’s baton as he burns his enemies in blue flames is a memorable visual that feels overdue for the franchise, as it’s a moment that more or less defines the nature of its villain in one visual). The titular Fantastic Beasts that show up are still memorable (even if they only really show up in an attempt to justify this series’ ongoing title), and I like that we finally get to meet Nicolas Flamel (Brontis jodorowsky), the immortal alchemist first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, who has become so old that a small handshake nearly breaks his fingers, but still possesses strength in magic.
There are small doses of memorability in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald then. But they are too few and far between the constant cascades of exposition and sequel-hyping. There are still three entries left for the Fantastic Beasts series to live up to its potential (and Crimes of Grindelwald certainly lets you know more films are coming). But in order to make a great franchise, each individual installment has to be able to stand on its own two feet in addition to building the greater mythology. J. K. Rowling’s script for Crimes of Grindelwald is so deeply preoccupied with world-building that it forgets to be a movie in its own right.