Austin Casey | Staff Writer
Ready your wands and prepare to return to the Wizarding World, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and company are back with plenty of magical mayhem to spare. “Fantastic Beasts: The Grimes of Grindelwald” follows Scamander and the other three main characters from the first film (who have drifted apart since then) as they advance toward confrontation with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).
It isn’t simply good versus evil though, as both sides become much more complex than they seem on the way to a visual effects-heavy finale full of revelations and big choices for many characters. This production is an ambitious film that continues the legacy of one of the largest and most lore-heavy multimedia franchises we have, but is rightfully dividing critics and fans on just how successful that continuation is.
It might sound silly comparing this movie to “Avengers: Infinity War” from earlier this year, but this film follows that movie by feeling more like an event-level epic than regular genre fare. The stakes are high and this movie (like “Infinity War”) has too many characters to count, but unlike the colorful and distinct superheroes, many of these characters blend into one another or get lost in the shuffle. Even remembering names can be difficult after a while, and (again, like “Infinity War”) the point of view jumps around to catch up on what each group of characters is up to, where some plot-lines are far more memorable than others.
A highlight of this impartial camera watching the actions of all characters was getting to see Grindelwald’s (played a bit over the top by Depp) group near the beginning of the film do truly awful things and then try to corrupt or intimidate wizards lined up against them. The breakout character from the first film, non-wizard Jacob Kowalski, is just as funny as last time, and actually might be more effective in his reduced role. Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore commands the screen in all of his scenes. Less interesting in this movie were the characters of Credence, Nagini, and Tina, mostly because they don’t connect with other characters in significant ways until the last act.
The set design is delightful, but often the camera does not hold on wide enough shots for long enough to truly enjoy the unique settings of the Ministry of Magic, Newt’s creature zoo of a home, or London and Paris in general. They obviously had great locations and should have been more open to taking advantage of them. The cinematography is fine if bland, although the opening action scene is almost unfollowable due to the lighting and motion. Perfect and distinct costuming from costume designer Colleen Atwood almost goes without saying, as the first film won the Oscar for best costume design and this film easily follows suit. The constant use of CGI works, but sometimes, actors fail to react believably. The score, one of the most generic parts of the first film, is slightly better, but James Newton Howard should not be afraid to be more distinct and bombastic with it.
It’s difficult to say the story is satisfying. Some of that is by design, as for the second time in a row, a cliffhanger pushes fans toward the next installment of the series. It is good writing for every character to clearly want something, and writer/universe creator J.K. Rowling does do that well here, but the way those characters bounced around in circles getting to those goals could be frustrating at times and slowed down the pace. Many of the scenes, and potentially even characters, feel like they could have been consolidated to form a tighter script.
The climax of the film, on the other hand, finally puts most of the characters in the same room, where so much happens so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up. The scenes of Scamander capturing and playing with monsters are fun, but the “Fantastic Beasts” themselves feel like an afterthought to the dark plot of this movie, whereas in the last film they felt more organically a part of the story.
I am not one who contains a library’s worth of knowledge of this universe in my head. I’ve seen all the movies just once and have hardly dipped into the books, but generally have enjoyed my experiences with the Potter franchise. Because of this, I’ll skip the much larger discussion of how this movie deepens, changes, or ignores the lore of the series and will keep it simple by sticking to the film’s merits and shortcomings. I’m slightly surprised at the generally weak scores critics have been giving this film. It benefits from the creative continuity behind the camera (keeping the usual franchise director, producer, and writer) and while missing the mark in a few ways, it largely worked for me and made me want to go see the next one. At best, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is an engaging and well-made new installment in the Harry Potter canon, and at worst, it’s at least entertaining, if crowded and unfocused. 7/10