I walked out of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald with one burning question that I hope to see answered at some point in the next of three more planned film in this Harry Potter prequel franchise:
Why the hell are these movies about Newt Scamander?
Now, I’m a little biased here, as I find Newt Scamander, as played by Eddie Redmayne, to be a completely insufferable character. The tics and quirks that are supposed to make him lovable come across to me as excruciating, even as they are largely played down in this film. But even if I found him insufferable I could get with it if there was a compelling reason for him to be the main character of these films, and two movies in there has yet to be one. Newt Scamander is a complete supporting character, wandering around the edges of way more interesting and dramatic stories, accidentally helping out here and there.
There’s something to be said about focusing this epic story on a side character; one of Newt’s philosophies is to find the beauty and meaning in all creatures, even the weirdest and grossest ones, and so a movie wherein the guy nobody takes seriously keeps secretly saving the day could be awesome. As Dumbledore and Grindelwald enact the sturm und drang of their massive wizard battles, Newt could be quietly in the shadows changing the course of history.
But that isn’t what these movies are about. Everybody in these movies thinks Newt is important as well, and it never makes any sense. The Ministry of Magic wants to send him to hunt and kill Credence, the Obscurist smoke-boy from the first movie. Young(er) Dumbledore wants him to do the same thing. Other characters show up to get help or succor from Newt, a man who seems congenitally incapable of providing either to any being that is not a Fantastic Beast.
In fact, Newt Scamander resembles nothing less than the dreaded Mary Sue in this film, which is technically impossible as a Mary Sue is a fanfic thing, and Harry Potter creator JK Rowling wrote this movie herself. But he largely fits the main criteria – he’s good at everything, everybody likes him and thinks he’s important. He’s embroiled in a complex series of love geometries, with at least three women in this film being head-over-heels for him. His semi-Asperger qualities have been tamped down in this movie, leaving him mostly a guy who can’t make eye contact, and as a result he has no noticeable weaknesses.
Newt has so few weaknesses I’m not even sure why there are other characters in this movie. He doesn’t need anyone’s assistance at any point; in the original Harry Potter stories Rowling created a triumvirate of characters who filled each others’ gaps and made a whole. In Crimes of Grindelwald Newt knows every spell, has a readily available collection of magical items, can solve any puzzle and, when he’s stumped, has a Fantastic Beast on hand to save the day. He spends a lot of the movie with Muggle Jacob in tow, and Jacob adds nothing to the plot and he doesn’t do anything to be of value (his one piece of advice to Newt, to not compare his love Tina’s eyes to a salamander, is completely wrong).
That Newt is so capable and so central wouldn’t be a problem if the plot supported or even NEEDED him to be these things. But the truth is that he’s running around solving mysteries that most of the other characters are already keyed into. You know how Raiders of the Lost Ark plays out the same way, plotwise, with or without Indiana Jones? Crimes of Grindelwald is similar, except that where Indy is fun and exciting to hang out with, Newt is irritating and pointless.
So what IS the plot of this movie? Glad you asked, because I’m not entirely sure. The plot, I believe, is about 90 minutes of wheel-spinning to get us to a final 30 minute lore drop that is important, interesting, philosophically fascinating and absolutely rushed through. When the movie begins Grindelwald, the evil wizard, escapes his captors (he got busted at the end of the last movie) and flees to Europe. He’s looking for Credence, that Obscurist smoke boy, for reasons we do not fully understand for most of the movie’s running time. Other characters DO, but nobody explains it.
Anyway, the good guys in America and Europe want to get to Credence before Grindelwald does. There’s a saggy hunt for him in Paris, consisting of a series of slapped together scenes that don’t follow in terms of plot, pacing or even editing. A number of characters bump into each other in various iterations – Newt and Jacob, Queenie and Grindelwald, Tina and newcomer Yusuf, Newt’s ex-flame Leta LeStrange and his brother Theseus, Credence and Nagini (who will one day become Voldemort’s pet snake) – but none of it adds up to anything until the very end, when Grindelwald gives a TED Talk and just about every character attends.
It is here, in the final thirty minutes, that we get a sense of what the fuck is even going on in these prequel movies and it’s so good it’s almost worth the nonsense that came before. Almost! I guess this is a spoiler, although I think it should be the main point of the whole movie, so be warned.
It turns out that Grindelwald has seen the future, specifically WWII and the horrors it brings. His problems with Muggles may be based on racist beliefs, but they’re backed up by the way we Nomajs keep fucking things up. His argument is that if the wizards don’t take control of the world, the Muggles with carpet bomb Europe before nuking Japan.
This is incredible. Voldemort was just bad; you couldn’t make a lot of arguments in favor of him and the Death Eaters. They were villains. But Grindelwald… well, he’s kind of right. This is morally and philosophically challenging. How do you deal with a bad guy who isn’t wrong? In a world where politics is getting more polarized and more violent this is a real question to be asked, as the 1970s showed us how it easy it was for radicals to take their liberal ideals and stuff them into bombs. At what point does coming violence allow us to commit violence? When do we take pre-emptive action, and is it more wrong to do terrible things to stop terrible things from happening or to stop the person taking the terrible action?
What you have is the moral conflict at the center of Minority Report, but with a wrinkle – we know, for sure, without question, that Grindelwald’s vision is correct. What he sees, and what he shows at his TED Talk, will come true. Worse, even – this movie doesn’t show the Holocaust, but it’s certainly implied.
How much meatier can you get? Yet this movie doesn’t deal with it, and by the end of the film Newt, who started off saying he won’t pick sides, picks a side against Grindelwald. There’s no room for doubt or discussion. Literally, mind you – Queenie, the New Yawkiest wizard in the world, goes from loving Muggle Jacob to joining Muggle subjugator Grindelwald without any significant scenes of discussion. She just flips a switch (and weirdly asks Jacob to come with her). It’s such a loss – there’s a debate to be had in this movie, and no one is having it.
If Newt is unlikable, the other characters don’t fare much better. There’s no movie where I’m ever going to like Muggle Jacob, but it is ESPECIALLY not in this movie, where he’s endless dead weight. He’s not even particularly funny this time around… not that he was the first time around either, but at least in the first movie he was delivering things that were clearly jokes.
Zoe Kravitz upgrades from a photo in the first film to something resembling a character in this film, but her Leta LeStrange embodies Grindelwald’s storytelling problem. She has a past with Newt, and she is now marrying his brother. But all of their emotional beats are told, and we get flashbacks to fill in the gaps that probably should have been filled in more organically (or maybe in the first movie). I don’t understand why she’s marrying Theseus, and we spend a lot of the movie not quite sure of how her various relationships work – including one with her dead brother that is so foundationally important to the story that I cannot believe it gets held back until a big info dump at the end.
Meanwhile, Katherine Waterston is profoundly wasted. She returns at Tina, the American auror who loves Newt, but not only does she have nothing to do in the movie, the film’s busy-making plotline requires her to be sour about it the whole time. It’s frustrating – not only does she have no role as a wizard, she has no role as a human being. She’s just standing around, scowling at Newt (she thinks he’s getting married to someone else).
If there’s a bright light in the film it’s Jude Law as Dumbledore. More than once I wondered why this wasn’t HIS movie; the idea that Dumbledore has spent his whole teaching career manipulating his students into acting as his agents is delightful, and Law makes a great secret spymaster. He also gives beautiful life to Dumbledore’s lingering regrets; he is a man torn between the past and the present, love and hate, and Law puts all of this just behind the sparkle in his eyes. This is identifiably the Dumbledore we know, but one who hasn’t quite made peace with his demons and his past.
That said, I suspect the main reason Dumbledore works so well is that we know the character; every other new character (including those introduced in the last film) is flat and empty. This is especially troubling with Ezra Miller’s Credence; after a whole movie setting him up as a sympathetic but troubled boy, Grindelwald just makes him into a one-dimensional being who everyone else is looking for. A more interesting movie might have given Credence more screentime and more internal life, but here he’s just slipping through in scenes, giving us enough signifiers to make his choice at the end of the movie sort of – SORT OF! – make sense.
I blame JK Rowling. It’s not that Grindelwald is inherently bad, it’s just written that way. The movie feels like a terrible adaptation of a very good book, with a lot of stuff shoe-horned into the corners, or dropped via thudding exposition. In a novel, Rowling would have woven Leta LeStrange’s story about her brother across hundreds of pages; in the movie she introduces a series of reveals and reversals IN THE SAME SCENE, none of which matters in the next scene. It’s just terribly structured and as such feels rushed and pointless. It goes nowhere, informs nothing, and the reveal at the beginning of the scene is undone by the twist at the end of the scene. Oh, and it all hinges on characters who have not been properly established.
But when Grindelwald gets good, it gets quite good. The last twenty or thirty minutes are excellent, and might color your thoughts when walking out of the theater. Johnny Depp, odious as he may be, is just the right kind of smarmy in Grindelwald’s TED Talk. He sells the wizard’s vision, and he makes the man very different from Voldemort. Where Voldemort was about raw, naked power and its accumulation, Grindelwald is more about manipulation and treachery. Depp brings a regret to Grindelwald that mirrors what Law brings to Dumbledore, and I can’t wait to see them go head-to-head… in three movies, I guess. I do have to say I wish he had committed some crimes in this movie, though. Mostly he just chills out in Paris.
The goodness at the ending (a goodness that still is infected with that feeling of being adapted from a superior source material – when Nicolas Flamel shows up at the end it feels more like a reference to a beloved scene in a novel than a plot point that works within this film) is what makes everything else so frustrating. If this had just been a meandering mess, if Rowling had nowhere to go with it, I would have simply been disappointed. But seeing that she has a great idea here, but that she spends two-thirds of the film wheel-spinning (something that worked in the Potter novels because the structure of the school year gave the books a form this movie lacks) becomes all the more aggravating.
Again and again the movie seems quite close to getting at interesting things, and on paper it IS interesting. The theme of couples/siblings torn apart by the early winds of war is fascinating, but not played out fully. It’s there, but it doesn’t quite work. While Rowling’s script is at fault, some responsibility must fall on the shoulders of David Yates, now the pre-eminent director of Potter stuff, who has managed to make a movie that is set in the Paris of the 1920s utterly dreary looking. Even with a surfeit of cool creatures in the film, Grindelwald is the least epic, least magical film in the Potter franchise, at least partially because the whole thing seems to be set inside tight rooms and on tight city streets that are located on a studio backlot. The film is also edited nearly to death; I maintain a suspicion there’s a version of this movie that’s forty-five minutes longer, makes more sense and breathes better. Yates never finds a visual hook into which to sink his teeth, and the movie’s photography is often as muddled as its plot.
There’s a movie that Crimes of Grindelwald reminds me of immensely, and it’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. George Lucas’ prequel series had a similar structure – a first film that is almost disconnected from the concept, with only the ending tying it all together. Then it moves into the second, darker movie, where a lot of vital lore happens… but where most of the running time is spent on half-baked characters running around killing time until they can converge for the big scene at the end. The big scene at the end is so big you almost believe it was worth it, until you try to watch the movie again and realize how much you’re suffering. Grindelwald is better than Clones, which it turns out is nearly unwatchable, but the parallels are eerie. I think that the story Rowling’s prequels are telling is better – or at least more unexpected and can offer more surprises – but this is certainly the Attack of the Clones of the Wizarding World films. Can Fantastic Beasts find its footing now that it has finally come to a plot, or are we destined for three solid movies worth of Revenge of the Sith?