Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (2018) Review

There’s a touch of vanity to the new Wizarding World logo which follows the Warner Bros shield at the start of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Gindelwald”, equal in hubris if not in ironic overconfidence to the unveiling (and shuttering) of Universal’s Dark Universe at the star of “The Mummy”. The mission is clear: expand the brand, diminish ‘Harry Potter’. The trouble is, the charm of Harry Potter was in its lead characters and their coming of age journey against the backdrop of a secret wizarding world falling back into a war which had not yet been won. You take those appealing characters away and all you’re left with is a wizarding world which doesn’t hold up to even the most cursory scrutiny in a movie that, for a family-friendly blockbuster, sure has a lot of baby murders in it.

Six months after the end of “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”, MACUSA have agreed to the extradition of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to answer for his crimes however during the prison transfer, Grindelwald escapes and goes underground in Paris, where Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is rumoured to be in hiding. Grindelwald believes Credence and his obscurus are the key to defeating Albus Dumbledore, Grindelwald’s only acknowledged obstacle to world domination.

Once again we see how casually J K Rowling low key endorses cruel and unusual punishments without a second thought. Whatever crimes Grindelwald may have committed (have the charges actually ever been confirmed? What exactly are the crimes of Grindelwald? This movie won’t actually tell you), solitary confinement and the forcible removal of his tongue seem particularly barbarous, not to mention the humiliation of whatever petty charm caused Grindelwald’s hair to grow unfeasibly long during his six month confinement.

Yates, never the most cinematic of directors, seems to have lost interest in the series which has become his millstone altogether. The visuals of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald” are atrocious and although he may be able to point to the cobbled together screenplay as a culprit, there’s no excusing the lack of care with which this multi-million dollar ‘blockbuster’ has been put together. It starts early with a series of bizarre close-up shots during the early scene of Newt, Leta LeStrange (Zoe Kravitz) and Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) in the Ministry of Magic and never really recovers from there. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald” is as awkwardly titled as it is ugly, with a colour palette that robs nearly every scene of any potential wonder the magical world could and should have. While vague on the crimes of Grindelwald, the crimes of David Yates are painfully obvious.

Yates is aided and abetted by J K Rowling who, in her sophomore effort at screenplay writing has not only learned nothing from her first venture but has doubled down on nearly everything that didn’t really work cinematically in “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”. Now fully in the throws of her Lucasian phase and mistaking repetition for poetry, she finds herself not only filling in back stories which didn’t need to be filled in but also retrospectively tarnishing the ‘future’ by contaminating the past. Having committed publicly to a five movie cycle, we’re now at the end of part two and the story, such as it is, has only just begun. In lieu of a plot, as with the last movie, Rowling offers a handful of shout-outs to background details and characters of the “Harry Potter” saga hung like threadbare tinsel around a collection of (occasionally sub-par) special effects-driven set pieces. Time and time again, the attention to minutiae which worked so well on the written page fails to translate over to the screen.

The Germans don’t have a word for writing like this – a collection of this-might-be-cool?-moments strung together without care for logic or character – but they should: scheißenschreiben. The more she delves into the Wizarding WorldTM, the more its inherent flaws are made apparent. Why would a society which has mastered the ability to instantaneously travel from point to point through aparation decide to transport its most dangerous prisoner in an old-fashioned flying carriage convoy with minimal security? Because it might look cool on screen. Also, having written the main villain into a secure and apparently inescapable prison at the end of movie one, he needed to escape. Thus we trudge wearily from action scene to tedious exposition scene to action scene to exposition, never once telling an interesting story. Characters reappear for reasons of convenience and if that means radically retconning the ending of the previous movie, despite the numerous potential problems that retcon might imply, so be it. The more it reaches to tie in this aimless story with the story of Harry Potter, the more it ends up contaminating the latter. The next time you watch “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2”, don’t forget to cheer as Neville heroically decapitates a poor woman who was not only the victim of a cruel curse but then had her soul co-opted and corrupted by the manipulations of Voldemort.

Speaking of manipulation, is it disturbing that Rowling’s most “prominent” gay character is now portrayed in two multi-film series as fixating on young men who are orphaned or estranged from their families and grooming them into doing all of his dirty work for him? And Dumbledore is very definitely shown to be gay in “The Crimes Of Grindelwald”, allaying fears that the saga would rollback the post-publication supplementary characterisation. If the scenes where he’s shown gazing longingly into the mirror of Erised at Grindelwald aren’t enough, there’s an unsubtly coded flashback scene which involves Dumbledore and Grindelwald literally exchanging bodily fluids, a plot device which serves to keep them apart. I guess what happens in Gryffindor stays in Gryffindor, no matter what may Slytherin.

The story’s fundamental problem is that beyond telling us that Grindelwald is evil, it doesn’t really go much beyond the ‘magical supremacist’ cliché. Sure, it’s kind of trying to position him as a magical Trump surrogate, an evil populist using people’s fears to whip up anger and support but each time it tries to show us how bad Grindelwald’s world would be, it ends up underlining how heinous the status quo of the magical world is. Grindelwald is at least transparent about his genocidal, racist agenda whereas the ‘legitimate’ authorities of the wizarding world are more circumspect but no less built on that supremacy. Amercian magical society has its own anti-muggle segregationist policies, the house elves are a slave race and consent is a mere trifle to a wizard, from memory alteration (abraca-gaslight) to literal 100% effective love potions that are of so little concern they’re sold to children in joke shops.

Grindelwald’s masterstroke is in showing the wizarding world of the 1920s what the future holds, but by invoking the imagery of the violence and atrocities of World War II, it just raises the question of what the ‘good’ wizard society did during that time of global conflict. Standing by and allowing the Holocaust – and hundreds of other atrocities –  to happen doesn’t exactly give them any kind of moral high ground. Ultimately, Newt’s position that he won’t take sides because each is as bad as the other and wizarding society, in general, is terrible is the only sane choice but of course the film has to override this by putting him through a confusingly shot, CGI-extravaganza-for-its-own-sake finale before putting him on the side of the horrible Orwellian bigots who are in power as opposed to the terrible fascist rebel who is trying to seize that same power because a 400-year-old man helped turn a blue firey dragon into a red and orange firey thing. Politics, eh?

For years, we’ve been lambasting Warner Brothers for interfering with the creators and directors of the DCEU but for the love of Zod, WB, please stage an intervention in the Wizarding World before it all collapses under the weight of its own mediocrity.

4/10 

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