No matter how beloved the source material, prequels will always be a hard sell to anybody but the most devoted fan. Most, as expected, are bad, and the few exceptions to that rule manage to delude filmmakers into thinking that they can do as good or better than those who failed. It’s a potent and ugly mixture of filmmaker/storyteller hubris and studio money-grubbing — one that dictates to its audience that what the person in charge likes about their work will ultimately be the thing that fans will want or else — and, after watching the likes of George Lucas, Sir Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson be felled by that combination in the last two decades, it’s only natural that a new storytelling icon would succumb in order to disappoint a whole new generation of moviegoer.
For a while now, J.K. Rowling has embodied the archetype of The Bad Creator, one who tells fans important details about a character’s identity at a convention and then fails at every turn to back that shit up in the text, who finds the specific minutiae of her work so fascinating and so relevant to her fans that she’s almost forgotten how to communicate to an audience mildly familiar with the Wizarding World, whose writing has basically become bad fan fiction over the course of the last ten years, and, of course, she’s now in charge of crafting a prequel series for a general audience. It is with this mindset that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was created, and its massive, potentially series-ending failure is a direct result of its author’s worst tendencies.
It’s been a few years since we last saw Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the plucky pet-loving protagonist of this prequel series, and after his adventures in New York capturing the titular critters that have come occupy his magical suitcase, he’s been banned from traveling internationally by the Ministry of Magic. His jaunt in the USA lead to the capture of Wizard Hitler, Gellert Grindelwald (the bloated, ugly corpse of Johnny Depp), who, in a headache-inducing prologue, manages to escape the wizard FBI during a nasty storm as he’s being transported to Europe to stand trial and flees to Paris to begin his machinations. His long-time lover (or, if you’re not aware of the canon, Best Friend) and current Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Albus Dumbledore (a pleasant Jude Law) can’t fight him due to a blood pact they made many years ago, so Dumbledore sends Scamander to the City of Lights in his stead. However, there is another reason for this — apparently Credence (Ezra Miller), the super-powerful obscurial survived his “death” at the end of the first film, and Dumbledore wants Scamander to appeal to his better angels and prevent him from joining up with the Wizard Nazis. Oh, joy.
Joining Newt in his sojourn to Gay Paree are Jacob (Dan Fogler), the goofy muggle baker from the first film, and Queenie (Alison Sudol or, as you might better know her, A Fine Frenzy), his telepathic magical lover. Their relationship and its potential success, of course, becomes a major part of the film’s climax, and it’ll let you down, but they’re here, which is good enough to bring some light to this bleak fucking movie. He’s also coaxed across the channel by the chance that he might have to reunite with his romantic interest from New York, Queenie’s sister, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, somehow given even less to do here than she was in the first film), who is on the trail of Credence as well given that she’s an auror (a member of the Wizard FBI) now. Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), a war hero who is on the hunt for Grindelwald, and his fiancee Lita Lestrange (an underutilized Zoe Kravitz), who has some prior history with Newt, has her own reasons for heading over there as well, involving Credence’s potential parentage, which the spends a disconcerting amount of time dealing with. It all converges in a third-act showdown at what amounts to Grindelwald’s Nuremberg rally — though it’s closer to the size of a Georgia cross-burning, all things considered — and has a final minute twist that is so patently stupid you have to wonder why nobody tried to stop Rowling before they began production. Oh, wait — it’s because she’s a billionaire, and you’re not.
The actors — so many in this ensemble, with so little to do — all generally have a rough time here, especially the charisma-free and utterly boring Depp, given that they’re sort of floundering about in support of an unwieldy and exposition-laden narrative so focused on setting up and establishing things to come in later installments that it forgets how to be entertaining in the first place. It’s why adapting something like The Silmarillion will always prove to be a folly — nobody wants to watch a goddamn encyclopedia put to screen unless they are absolutely devoted to the subject matter — even if it’ll enlighten fans somewhat somewhere down the line. Redmayne’s still an incredibly odd and off-putting choice for the lead here, and so much of this film depends on whether or not you like his particular shtick. It’s odd how little his goofy persona fits his surroundings — almost if you put Doctor Dolittle in the midst of your filmic recreation of the Beer Hall Putsch — but it’s still somewhat more interesting than it has any right to be.
Perhaps all of this could be compelling if it were at all stimulating, but the film is about as boring as a modern blockbuster gets, as it feels much longer than its 134 minutes would suggest. It’s visually unappealing, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if you’ve seen the first installment, but somehow it got worse. Paris is somehow a non-entity in the film, outside of jokes about how none of the American characters can properly speak French and a few shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, and it looks virtually indistinguishable from London, which is kind of sad. Director David Yates has somehow managed to get worse at the fundamentals of crafting a compelling story with every single installment of this stupid franchise that he directs, and at this point, it’s a wonder how the whole essence of cinematic storytelling hasn’t totally eluded him yet.
This malaise infects every aspect of the filmmaking. The action scenes are ugly (including one miserable blue/orange-colored fight scene at the end of the damn movie, like it were a poster for a bad movie), the smash cut transitions have never been more awkward, and the entire thing is dark and grimy, especially in comparison to all of the other films in the Harry Potter universe. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our brief return to Hogwarts, the site of so much joy and wonder over the course of the original seven films, but here it’s lifeless and flat, devoid of the warmth and light that made it so appealing visually (and yes, you can argue about mood and how that scene is colored by the point-of-view character’s experiences all you want, but the fact is that I don’t think Yates and Rowling even considered that, especially given how the rest of the film follows the same palette).
You’re going to read a whole lot in the next couple of weeks about how “nakedly political” this film is, but it’s a bit of a wash, given how intensely milquetoast Rowling’s characters are. If anything, the movie is about the surprisingly difficult push it takes to get a moderate — in this case, Newt — to oppose tyranny, and it’s general thesis about how to handle wizard fascists is this: let them congregate, let them espouse their ideas and theses about how an entire race of people should die, and then when they seem like they might possibly be doing something, then you should pay attention and fight back. It’s one thing if you’re reading this as historical criticism, given that it’s how fascism began to rise in Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but that message comes out of the mouth of Dumbledore, long the franchise’s true moral center, as advice to a group of aurors sent to put down this wizard uprising before it even starts. It’s “Don’t Punch Nazis: The Film.”
This is frankly a bad message, one that goes against the messaging within Rowling’s prior work on the same subject (The Order of the Phoenix remaining a much more persuading fash-bashing argument). It’s especially frustrating when you compare it to, say, the much-maligned Star Wars prequels (and I’m not alone in comparing Rowling to George Lucas), which are a more cogent articulation of the ugly terror of a fascist rise-to-power than this could ever be, and at least had some measure of articulated criticism for its protagonists and the organizations that they belong to built into the text itself. They share some negative qualities, to be sure (Newt’s awkward articulations of his love for Tina are as close as a film has come in recent years to this scene), but Fantastic Beasts is bad enough that I pined for the third act fun of something like Attack of the Clones on at least a bare-bones cinematic level.
To be totally fair, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald does have some fun moments — specifically anything involving the pre-colon title critters that Rowling and Yates bury under mounds of bullshit. The little Nifflers, the gold-hoarding critters from the first film, are back, and are given some fun moments, and there’s a giant cat-dragon creature from the Far East, liberated from a cruel circus in the second act, that provides the film’s only laugh when Scamander finally catches him. They’re full of spark, a Harry Potter-esque joie de vivre that makes one wonder what it would have been like had Rowling just disregarded her fanbase and their expectations and wrote a film series for families, full of fantastic creatures and the silly little man who wants to make sure that they’re safe. But Rowling seems to be scared that the sun is setting on her creation, and wants to place the bars of entry high above this current series, hanging her hand-crafted signs on those theoretical walls that read “For Fans Only.” And if each further entry in this series is going to be this utterly boring and incomprehensible to anyone who can’t win their local nerd bar’s Potter trivia night, eventually it will only be the aging super fans who see these films, and that will be a shame.