I had a lot of issues with the first entry in the Fantastic Beasts series two years ago, and the latest film sadly exacerbates them. I’ve been a Harry Potter fan since the first movie came out, and I’ve watched them and read the books obsessively for the better part of my adult life. This includes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a razor-thin fictitious textbook written by J.K. Rowling (it’s pronounced ROW-ling, with a hard “O” sound, like you’re rowing a boat!) for charity while we all anxiously awaited the release of “Order of the Phoenix.”
At its core, that is the main problem with this series of films as opposed to the main HP franchise. The eight original films were adapted from seven books that Rowling got to take her time crafting over several years, with an identifiable lead and other relatable characters for all ages. These first two films (of a planned five – ugh) are based on a tossed off textbook that’s barely more than 120 pages, and is little more than a guide to the magical creatures used in the main series (with some commentary from Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the margins). The lead character, Newt Scamander, is merely the author of the textbook, and as such we had no framework with which to build our lead, much less make him resonate with the audience. This is the problem with adaptation, especially now since Rowling herself is penning the screenplays.
Newt Scamander isn’t a compelling leading character, mostly because Eddie Redmayne plays him as this waifish dandy who has more kinship with animals than humans, to the point that one might reasonably wonder if he’s on some kind of spectrum. It’s especially glaring when he habitually looks down at the ground rather than make eye contact when he talks to people. His delivery is so monotone and wooden that it boggles the mind to set up a love triangle in this film with him at the center.
But even then, there might have been compelling adventures for the character, especially given the opening of the first film, with his arrival in 1925 New York with the intent of going to Arizona to free a rare magical bird. He even got a gang of companions to help in his endeavor. There could have been so much originality in his worldly travels, and in getting a look at wizarding society in other countries 70 years before Harry’s journey.
Instead, that premise was quickly tossed aside to use him as an entry point into an entirely different story arc about the rise and fall of Gellert Grindelwald (previously Colin Farrell in disguise, now fully Johnny Depp, looking like an extra on the set of The Lost Boys), which hardcore Potter fans know comes at the hand of Albus Dumbledore in 1945 (it’s noted on his Chocolate Frog card). The latest entry, The Crimes of Grindelwald (spoiler, you see Grindelwald commit almost no crimes until the film’s climax), leans further into this story, which makes one wonder why Scamander is even involved, especially as the lead.
To even use the term, “Fantastic Beasts” at this point is almost an ironic joke, because apart from a scene in his London menagerie, the all-too-brief return of the Niffler, and the introduction of a lion-like creature called a Zouwu, there are basically no beasts to be found, and what we do get is relegated to reference. In fact, there’s a scene where Scamander tames the Zouwu with the magical equivalent of a squeak toy, and to me that was the most “magical” moment of the entire film. The way its eyes widened at the site of a jingly doll head on a stick was the only moment where I truly felt like I was back in Rowling’s world proper.
We get some old/new or new/old faces with this sequel. Scamander is once again joined by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and New York No-Maj (God I hate that term; what the hell was wrong with Muggle?) Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, whose jolly, level-headed sense of humor continues to make him the best thing about these movies BY FAR.
In addition, we have Zoë Kravitz as Leta Lestrange, referenced in the last movie as Newt’s “One That Got Away.” She is engaged to Newt’s brother, an Auror named Theseus (named for the man who slew the Minotaur in Greek mythology), played by Callum Turner. Jude Law dons a three-piece suit and a beard to play a young version of Dumbledore. Ezra Miller returns as Credence, the boy-turned-monster who somehow didn’t die in the last movie.
As far as the plot, there’s a lot going on, and much of it relies on convenience to make any sense. Six months after the previous film, Grindelwald escapes custody while being transferred to the UK, thanks to the betrayal of Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie), who used to be Tina and Queenie’s supervisor. They flee to Paris, where it is believed Credence went after not dying despite really looking like he died last time out.
Meanwhile, Newt is grounded in England for his actions in New York, with the Ministry offering a lift of his travel ban if he’ll go to Paris and kill Credence. Newt refuses, but he’s smuggled out by Dumbledore so he can protect the boy. Also, Queenie and Jacob show up out of nowhere, with Queenie using a love potion on Jacob to convince him to get married in England, where Muggles and Wizards are allowed to wed (noted in the previous film as prohibited in America), and also to find Tina in, you guessed it, Paris. Queenie leaves Jacob when the potion wears off and he questions her actions. In Paris, Credence and his girlfriend (Claudia Kim) escape a circus freak show (side note: What’s the point of a circus in the wizarding world? Circuses are about stunts and illusions and performance art, which can just be magicked in this universe. Wouldn’t all sense of wonder be lost if it can literally be explained with magic?), and are being tailed both by Tina, now working as an Auror again, and by a Senegalese wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who has made an Unbreakable Vow to kill Credence, as he is believed to be a black sheep of the Lestrange family line, and that blood’s gotta stay pure, y’all.
Oh, and Grindewald is recruiting followers by holding rallies and talking about freedom based on nothing, even though his actions tell the exact opposite story. Sound like anyone we know? He even uses future images of World War II and the Nazis as a means to scare people into following him, even though in his mind, he’s the one about to do some serious ethnic cleansing. Hell, he gets Queenie to question her loyalties just on this premise of Wizard/Muggle intermarriage, even though all other aspects of his personality would suggest he would stamp out such an act before you’d blink. It’s one of the more off-putting aspects of this film, because even though the characters are thin, Rowling gave them defined traits that are now being betrayed, because I’m sorry, the fact that Queenie – WHO CAN LITERALLY READ MINDS – is so easily manipulated by Grindelwald’s figurative silver tongue simply beggars reason.
But again, this is supposedly a feature, not a bug. The previous film created this ragtag ensemble, and this film splits them up on so many disparate paths that somehow all converge at the end despite there being no logical reason for it. The titular beasts are, at best, a sideshow. And worst of all, the entire proceeding serves as little more than a set of fan service references, which is all well and good for us hardcore Potterheads, but for the new, younger audience, none of it is relevant.
For example, it was heavily implied in “Deathly Hallows,” and later confirmed by Rowling, that Dumbledore was not only gay, but at one point was in love with Grindelwald, which made their eventual showdown so devastating for him. This film not only displays that link explicitly, we even trot out the Mirror of Erised to illustrate it. Brontis Jodorowsky shows up as Nicolas Flamel, the real-life alchemist who in this universe created the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s in America) Stone, which was also on Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card, yet another Captain America “I understood that reference” moment. In flashbacks, we see Dumbledore teach Defense Against the Dark Arts to Newt and Leta, which is just a recreation of the Boggart scene from Prisoner of Azkaban, but I will give some credit to this sequence as it goes farther than any other film in proving that Slytherins aren’t just a bunch of bigoted dicks, granting Leta some pathos in the process.
And finally, the most baffling of all, is the reveal that Credence’s girlfriend is Nagini. As in, the snake. She’s established here as being a “maledictus,” and has a blood curse that forces her to transfigure into a snake at night (and on demand for the circus), and will eventually turn her into one permanently. I mean, are we seriously trying to make the goddam snake a tragic character? Really? You know this retroactively makes Neville Longbottom a murderer when he LITERALLY CHOPS HER HEAD OFF to destroy the horcrux and help defeat Voldemort, right? Do we really want to go down this road? Why can’t shit just be left alone? Why couldn’t Nagini just be a fucking snake?
The magic is certainly fading with each additional entry in this series, and I’m almost preemptively traumatized by what will have to happen to wrap this up over three more movies. Instead of creating an original story with a blank slate character to lead on a plethora of new magical adventures, we’ve instead settled back into the standard good vs. evil, light vs. dark trope we’ve always had, not just in the wizarding world, but in second rate cinema in general. There’s not even a point to using the phrase “Fantastic Beasts” anymore. Just call it, “How I Met Your Dumbledore” and be done with it.
Also, for what it’s worth, the previous film won the Oscar for Costume Design, so be on the lookout for that next year as well.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What will be the next franchise to give us fatigue? Am I a hypocrite for buying my newborn nephew a stuffed Niffler? Let me know!