J.K. Rowling’s Sequel is Rich in Magic—Not So Much in Character Development
DIRECTED BY: DAVID YATES/2018
The Wizarding World is in crisis—again. What will the American and European Ministries of Magic do about Gellert Grindelwald, the greatest threat to their safety in centuries? At least, until that Voldemort guy shows up in a few decades—in case the period-ambiguous robes have made you forget, this story takes place in the 1920s.
And Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, née Colin Farrell in disguise in the previous film) has fixated his future upon one Credence (Ezra Miller), the tortured and unfortunately-haircutted boy we met in New York. Not really a spoiler alert because it’s in every trailer: No, he didn’t really die at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which means his raw, cataclysmic power may be Grindelwald’s key to dominance over the magical and No-Maj worlds.
Of course, our heroes have something to say (and some spells to cast) about that. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), sisters Tina and Queenie (Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol), and No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) want to find Credence before Grindelwald does, as well as protect him from their magical bureaucracy’s death sentence. Oh, and Dumbledore’s back, guys!
While Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald keeps remarkable focus on its plot for one so dense, summarizing the central conflict is no easy trick. Two continents, dozens of characters, and a gajillion million fantastic beasts crowd into a surprisingly reasonable 134-minute runtime, making a feast fitting for a story from J.K. Rowling and for a Thanksgiving trip to the theater. New spells, new costumes, and new creatures create a visual extravagance hard to describe but easy to be dazzled by.
If you’re already a Potterhead, this Fantastic Beasts sequel will almost certainly enchant you. But what if you haven’t seen Harry Potter?
Crimes of Grindelwald is a story that benefits from the big screen treatment because of its larger-than-life sumptuousness, and because—let’s be real—we live in a world where most at-home viewing isn’t single-screen viewing. A dark theater will keep you focused on all the plotplotplot crammed into almost every line of dialogue. This movie demands your full attention and maybe several viewings of each Harry Potter movie before you go, but it would be even better if you’ve read the books and/or spent some time on Pottermore.com. This second movie in the series is operating on the same level of complexity as Order of the Phoenix, Harry’s fifth adventure, with its familial tanglings, multisyllabic word wranglings, and constant winks at devoted Potter fans. It’s one big Easter Egg, and every new plotplotplot twist feels like it’s written with those fans in mind. (And just wait till they release the extended edition with all those scenes in the trailers that missed the theatrical cut!)
While that makes for a thrill-filled story, it also makes for one hard to connect with on a deep level. Before he was dueling with Death Eaters, Harry’s battles were to endure a rude family, find friends, and survive his exams. We came to love him (and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and McGonagall and even Dumbledore) through mundanity well before they dabbled in heroics. Starting this story smaller would have helped create the emotional investment needed to help make those twists pay off.
Instead, too much of the backstory just becomes deadweight. Ideas begin and end before they can deepen, and many characters feel like mere plot movers. (Poor Credence is more a MacGuffin than a person with his minimal interiority.) While we’ve been promised five movies with the perfectly likable Newt and Tina and Queenie and Jacob and even the new Dumbledore (Jude Law), I hate to think it might take that long to care about them as much as I did for Harry by the end of his first adventure. Besides, did I really need the backstory of Voldemort’s snake anyway? I’ll go ahead and answer that one: No, I really didn’t.
Because the movie would rather spend time on Easter Eggs about Leta Lestrange’s (Zoë Kravitz) family tree instead of simply spending time with her, the story wraps a number of threads up with convenient magic-us ex machinas, and whether these play fair with Potterheads’ understanding of Rowling’s world is up for debate. Still, it’s hard to leave with a sour taste in your mouth after watching those cute nifflers cause their cute chaos and a hilarious Dan Fogler steal every scene he’s in. And boy, is it good to see Jude Law again. (“It’s Mr. Napkin Head!” my sister cheeped when he appeared.) Taking on a young version of a beloved character is often thankless, but his self-effacing charm and conviction work wonders.
If you’re already a Potterhead, this Fantastic Beasts sequel will almost certainly enchant you. But what if you haven’t seen Harry Potter and/or invested your memory into trivia like Hogwarts’ students last names? I can’t speak from experience, but I doubt this adventure will be as rewarding if you’re more casual with Potter because this film wasn’t made for you—even if you’ve seen the first Fantastic Beasts. The effects will be just as stunning and the jokes might even land, but you’ll need a Potter-savvy friend to explain who the heck that Nicolas Flamel guy is and why the heck he matters in a movie already so full.