Not your kids’ Wizarding World.
Remember way back in 2001 when a young Daniel Radcliffe charmed us all in a kid’s film based on a children’s book? We thought the first Harry Potter film was a good family affair, even if it did contain snakes, child abuse, and a creepy guy eating unicorns and living on another creepy guy’s skull. Ok, so we were not the best judges of family movies, but it was a Christopher Columbus film, the king of family movies. I mean, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting…huh. Wow. We are kind of fucked up. Well, at least none of those featured a baby being murdered like in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Yes, I know Voldemort tried to kill a baby, but he failed. Attempted murder is okay in family movies. Or something.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead, unless you are a Potterhead and have read every rumor on every Potter forum on every Internet. Or something.)
In case I was not clear in the previous paragraph, The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a children’s movie. In the first ten minutes of the film, multiple wizards are killed and another has his tongue removed. To be fair, we do not see the actual tongue removal and we barely see the killings (due to the cinematography being performed in either black or really dark gray), but the body count and gruesome factor of this film really hit the ground running. A few minutes after the opening scene, a family is murdered, including a baby. Again, this film is PG-13, so we do not actually see the infanticide or any blood to speak of, but J.K. Rowling has gotten really dark.
I will give you three guesses, but you will only need one.
This being a sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we are reacquainted with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is trying to get his international travel ban rescinded (which was put in place after half of New York City was destroyed in the previous film). While at the ministry of magic, we also meet Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who is an auror, and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is an assistant to the head of magical law enforcement. While Newt is pleading his case to lift the ban, the panel of wizards hearing his case offer to lift the ban on the condition Newt agree to become an auror and help hunt down the now-escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Newt refuses, even though everyone in the theater knows he is going to end up joining the hunt, and in another country, no less. If Rowling’s writing is anything, it’s comically predictable.
Eventually, the rest of the gang from the previous film shows up, including auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler). Even though I previously wrote that I hoped they all would return for a sequel, I kind of wish they hadn’t. Queenie and Jacob are forced to play out an insipid relationship spat where she is mad at him for refusing to violate laws that would result in her going to prison. For all the charm they exuded in the first film, this film treated the two of them like a wad of chaw. And, they were not the only characters stuck with a dumb romance problem. Tina is upset at Newt because she misunderstood a newspaper article about Leta being engaged to a Scamander. Read past the title. I told you Rowling has gotten really dark, which now apparently includes portraying women as dipshits.
She is standing there, holding a human head!
Putting the relationship nonsense aside, I did enjoy much of the film for the first act and a half. The film features a few really cool new creatures (one named Nagina, portrayed by Kim Soo-hyun, also known as Claudia Kim) and a great action sequence with Credence (Ezra Miller), whom also returns from the previous film. If the film had stuck with the whole Fantastic Beasts concept and woven that into the main narrative, this film would have been great. Instead, the film screeches to a deafening halt near the end of the second act when Leta and another auror vomit twenty minutes of exposition to explain to Credence that they do not know who Credence’s parents are (Credence’s entire story arc in this film is to ID his parents). Not to be outdone, Grindelwald immediately follows that with more exposition in a speech to a crowded arena where he channels his inner Magneto, wondering why wizards are not currently running the world and ruling over the non-wizards. Yes, this is the same dead horse of a topic that Rowling stomped into glue during the Harry Potter films, and, yes, but that horse was not a fantastic beast. I think.
Can you please be done talking?
As always, Rowling is simply out of her league when it comes to weaving social and political allegories into her stories (the parallels with the current American and European problems with racism and nationalist-bigotry are obvious) and this film is no exception. The film also suffers from smaller issues, like lighting that makes much of the film very difficult to see (the opening fight scene was probably awesome to watch if you are an owl), wizards who often forget they no magic (a running theme of the entire franchise), and relating nearly every character to something in the Harry Potter films, including the atrocious big reveal at the end that is complete nonsense. Similar to Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Crimes of Grindelwald will scratch your itch for a new franchise entry, but still manages to leave you with a rash. Or something.
Rating: Ask for eight dollars back and a new writer for the next sequel.