When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them went all Scooby Doo on moviegoers two years ago, swapping out a Colin Farrell mask for a Johnny Depp, a hundred million Harry Potter fans cried out in agony and disappointment. Whatever his personal failings (many, by tabloid accounts), Depp had long lost his luster as a genre leading man, devolving into one of the highest paid cosplay performers in Hollywood. It’s not that Depp, once considered a talented, if eccentric, performer, can no longer act. It’s that Depp has lost interest in acting ages ago, exchanging goofy accents, over-broad physical acting in exchange for one lucrative paycheck after another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but Depp and his steady descent into a caricature of himself mirrors the diminishing returns of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a prequel/spin-off series set in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter cinematic universe.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens in predictable, yawn-inducing fashion, with Depp’s Gellert Grindelwald, a proto-Voldemort, pre-Hitler Dark Wizard with the usual lust for power and world domination (over non-magical humanity). Like Magneto in the X-Men comics and movies, Grindelwald believes in the innate superiority of the magic-born and the inherent inferiority of No-Majs (American) or Muggles (British). Aka He-Who-Shall-Be-Named, Grindelwald easily escapes the magical shackles that bind him, leaving the New York City of Fantastic Beasts behind him. Relocating to pre-Depression Paris, Grindelwald effortlessly recruits followers willing to do anything for him, including dispossessing a family of their home and lives before they’ve had a chance to sit down for evening tea. Like all wannabe dictators, Grindelwald has a plan, a plan that involves seducing Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a super-powerful, shape-shifting “obscurial.”

The Dark Wizard and His Plot for World Domination eventually intersects with the hero of Fantastic Beasts, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a shy, introverted magizoologist who distinctly prefers the company of magical creatures to other wizards or humans. Newt initially rejects a plea from the Ministry of Magic, including his brother-Auror, Theseus (Callum Turner), and his old mentor-teacher, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), to set aside his magical creatures and help them locate Credence before Grindelwald does, but he quickly changes his mind once he learns Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has traveled to Paris for the same purpose. And where Tina goes, so does her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Queenie’s No-Maj boyfriend, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Both are essentially superfluous to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, but apparently someone forgot to inform J.K. Rowling (she wrote the screenplay solo this time).

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald contains all of Rowling’s excesses: Extraneous characters, massive info-dumps, big-spectacle set pieces, and almost endless digressions. If AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) gave out an Oscar for Best Short Film Turned Into A Bloated Two-Hour and Fourteen-Minute Epic, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald would win hands (and pants) down. At best, Rowling had all of 35-45 minutes of actual story, but with three more promised sequels, she had to find a way to pad out the running time. Where little of any consequence happens over the first 90 minutes outside of introducing new characters, reintroducing old characters, and the leisurely, let’s-not-rush-too-much search for Credence, everything of any consequence or ultimately interest, including the usual middle-chapter reveals (secrets, everyone has one or four) gets stuffed into the frenzied last 35-45 minutes.

 

Of the new-old characters, Nagini (Claudia Kim), a woman cursed to turn into a giant snake and Voldemort’s future companion and pet, caused the most pre-release controversy, due to the casting of an Asian actress in an old-school, stereotypical role of a subservient, exotic, female character. She’s certainly all those things, but she’s also badly underwritten, given a handful of lines while spending most of her screentime frozen in concern at Credence’s inevitable slide towards the Dark Side (apologies, wrong franchise, wrong cinematic universe). Newt’s brother, Theseus, isn’t so much a character than a plot device, while the only other character of any significance, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), gets screen time and development (via Rowling’s favorite plot device, flashbacks), while eventually getting squandered in a climax that falls far short of the redemptive arc Rowling obviously envisioned for her. Unfortunately, that’s just par for the Wizarding World course now. With Rowling in complete control of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, the future looks even bleaker than the one Grindelwald envisions for non-wizards.

Category: Film, reviews

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