2 December 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review


Before we start this review in earnest, I'd like to take a moment to direct your attention to the title of the latest entry in what Warner Bros are trying to establish as the "Wizarding World" franchise. It is, as you likely know (how else did you get here?), Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Let's think about that for a second, shall we? To put it in non-magical terms, the title of this film is "Cool Animals: Race War", and it's about David Attenborough getting into a fist-fight with Adolf Hitler. I'm making light of it, but there's a clear, undeniable friction between the "Fantastic Beasts" branding and the path these films have actually took, resulting in a film - and indeed, a franchise - that feels at war with itself, tugging in two different directions throughout and nearly tearing itself in half. And that's just the title - the opening scene of the film only reinforces this sense of friction, a sequence that sees Grindelwald (again, the wizarding version of Hitler) escape from prison that ends with some classic Harry Potter happy twinkly music as the title card appears. "The magical Nazis are on the rise again! Time for a fun adventure!".

It's a staggering miscalculation, the first of many that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald commits over the course of its running time that all add up to create something that simply shouldn't exist, if not at all then certainly in the form it's currently in. From a film-making perspective it's bad - drab and unexciting in all the ways that instantly mark it as a David Yates movie - but from a Harry Potter perspective it's downright insulting, inserting clearly made up on the spot backstory where none is needed and (seemingly) altering established facts about this world and its characters on a whim. It's fan fiction-y and pandering in all the worst ways, and it ends with a "shocking reveal" so deeply unearned by the film itself and totally at odds with the larger Harry Potter canon around it that I have to assume that the characters involved are either mistaken or simply lying, less my brain be turned to mush trying to figure out just what the hell J.K. Rowling was thinking. Making a film "just for fans" is easy - making a film that's "just for fans" that even the fans are going to hate is bloody hard, yet it's the one thing that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald unequivocally succeeds at.

If I sound exasperated, well, that's because I am. Even ignoring the way that much of the film is effectively just unneeded backstory about characters you don't really care about, from a purely storytelling level, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is fundamentally dysfunctional, consistently failing to give the audience the information they need to be engaged in the movie that they're watching. Like almost all of J.K. Rowling's other writings, it's ultimately a mystery story at heart - but here, the mysteries that are central to the story are so poorly seeded by the film itself that there are multiple instances of the audience not knowing what the question even is until the answer is on-screen in front of them. Worse, even if these mysteries had've been set up better, the answers themselves only either raise more questions, or ultimately have very little impact on anything of importance.

Which means that for the vast majority of it's running time, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is downright directionless, never really feeling like it's started in earnest because it's either unable or unwilling to give you any indication of what this film is ultimately about or where it might be headed until far too late. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that at least part of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is Rowling's attempt to reckon with the return of fascism as a political force in the West and the rise of the alt-right, how the disenfranchised can so easily be seduced by a charismatic leader who offers supposedly simple, ideologically driven solutions to complex problems, and that's a noble goal - but frankly, Rowling isn't anywhere near as good a screenwriter as she is an author, and the resulting product can't help but feel flimsy and spineless (and maybe even naive) in comparison to what I imagine it could've been had it been fleshed out in novel form.

But the biggest problem with all this is that it's so easy to imagine what this franchise could've been in the right hands, so easy to see the potential that a prequel series about a young Albus Dumbledore and Newt Scamander travelling around the world doing wizard stuff (that eventually - not yet, but eventually - sees them moving against Grindelwald) contains. I like Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander and Dan Fogler's Jacob Kowalski; I like Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein (even if she has almost nothing to do here); I like Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore; and much as it pains me to say, I even think that Johnny Depp isn't bad as Grindelwald. There is value here, entertainment to be found if you look hard enough. With a better sense of direction and someone who isn't David Yates at the helm (seriously, his talent for making a world full of witches and wizards and allegedly fantastic beasts feel about as magical as taking a dump in a petrol station bathroom really can't be understated), I do think that these films could've been if not outright great then at least an interesting entry into the Harry Potter canon. But as it is, the only people likely to be pleased with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald are Warner Bros' bean counters - and not even them, if the franchise continues to kill any and all enthusiasm for this world that audiences once held.

★★☆☆☆
2 stars

Oh, and if you're going to make a franchise that's ultimately about the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald? You should at least have the courage to make the nature of that relationship clear rather than hiding behind winks and nudges, you cowards.

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