Wednesday, November 21, 2018

(Spoiler-Free) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Movie Review
Warner Bros Studios Pictures
The importance of family, power of love, good vs evil – the Harry Potter series was a master at being a universal phenomenon. No matter where you came from or how you found the story, author J.K. Rowling offered a doorway into storytelling as easy as flicking your wand and make-believing you were a witch or wizard on your way to exploring her wizarding world. Ten years after her first series ended, and the start of a new chapter has begun, it's a little clearer with the Fantastic Beasts series that the story we loved is not as accessible as it used to be - whether you’re a die-hard fan of the series already or just curious about the franchise's future.

Following Newt on his adventures, the second Fantastic Beasts film travels to the Paris wizarding world where Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) promises freedom for his growing, loyal band of followers who want to be liberated from the shadows of the No-Maj/Muggle world. In trying to stop his rise to power, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) requests the help of his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Meeting in the middle are both foes and friends alike - Tina Goldstein (Katharine Waterston), Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), Leta Lestrange (Ezra Miller), Nagini (Claudia Kim), and Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) – who called to decide which side they are on.

To say the least, there’s a lot going on in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Where the previous film Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was a mere appetizer, its follow-up is the meaty hook of what’s ahead. With three more installments on the way, Rowling as screenwriter employs all the world-building and story-development she has at her disposal– introducing new characters, uniting or pitting familiar faces against each other, and trying to connect her novels to this other set of adventures. Her revered imagination and ability to weave her ideas together is the film’s best and worst assets. 

To the sequel’s long-awaited credit, there’s no way that you can’t not feel like this film gives you your fill of exploring the wizarding world. From returning to Hogwarts to seeing new avenues of the French wizarding world, every stone feels unturned as the intricacies of the impending wizarding war connects to all of the characters’ journeys and motivations. Unlike any of the Harry Potter films he’s directed before, David Yates sheds the constricted nature of his previous installments from Order of the Phoenix and beyond to make this film as gorgeously grim as it can be. He and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot creates fresh and interesting angles of the world we love that we haven’t seen before. With every fresh installment of the phenomenon, the escapism gets better and better from James Newton Howard’s ominous score to the glorious production design by Stuart Craig. Every time you think you’ve seen what this series has to offer, there’s more around the corner - that reason alone is what keeps fans coming back for more.

Story-wise, the film also has a lot of intricate moving parts with the characters and doesn't shy away from making this the darkest entry in the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchise. Primarily, because of Grindelwald. Similar to Voldemort, he is a grave threat against the wizarding world, a master behind the curtain pulling all of the strings. The entire ensemble is in one way or another an outsider- they don’t fit in with their peers or society. Some are searching for their long-lost identity and validation (Credence, Leta, Nagini); others have weaknesses that can be exploited by Grindelwald or help them take a stronger stance against him (Newt, Tina, Queenie, Jacob, Theseus, Yusaf). And because of that, we truly get a  sense of how powerful he is by how he uses other characters as a pawn for his vision. As moviegoers, we're left to watch what Grindelwald is capable of, and root that our favorites don't fall into his cat-and-mouse schemes. As much as the film is darker in its tone and explores human nature more, there's also a lot of lightness to be adventurous, romantic, and charming. Unlike Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, this installment has a better balance of flipping between both styles. 

On the other hand, however, The Crimes of Grindelwald also has too much going on for its own good. The majority of the film lies in Grindelwald's hands to set up the next movie and hopefully our heroes’ comeback, which is understandable. However, some of the most basic questions we expect to be answered from the first film feels glossed over or entirely unaddressed. Yes this film sits squarely in the worldbuilding that Rowling designed, but the plot feels more concerned about laying out more loose ends rather than tying some of them up. Similar to Newt, who doesn't feel like the star of his own story, some of the characters you expect more from (because of the press hype) are almost inactive to the story – Dumbledore and Nagini, in particular. The promise of entirely new characters feels overshadowed by the fact that they emerge out of nowhere with arcs of their own and eventually cut short to make up for the three-quel or other characters. This already big plot tries to fit in exposition (specifically for Zoe Kravitz's compelling but oddly used Leta) that comes across as misdirection instead of answers we’re looking for.

Unlike the Harry Potter books which gave readers all of the backstory and character development that went missing with the adaptations, it was nice to have her books to lean back on. Some of its greater themes were mainstays from beginning to end, while Fantastic Beasts still quite hasn't found its thematic footing yet – Political undertones? Good vs evil? Yes and yes. But other than loving the characters or the actors' performances, it's difficult to personalize them so far.

The Fantastic Beasts franchise is definitely Rowling’s playground –– we’re invited to explore but only as much as she wants us to. As a franchise unfolding as it goes along, really two things are happening: Potterheads are excited to dissect the Harry Potter universe for two more years until the third film (can you guess which camp I’m in), or feel disinterested/tricked because they’re waiting for clues to mean something beyond changing Harry Potter canon. (The fact that some things from Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them haven't been able to yet doesn't bode much confidence). In the sequel, it's not necessarily a question of whether or offer not easter eggs from the past  have been included or offers clues that will keep us busy…it’s about whether or not what’s been laid out has relevance in the future. This has already been a huge gamble, and it seems like the risk just keeps getting bigger – for some, not better.

As big as a Potterhead as I am, I wasn’t expecting a lot from Crimes of Grindelwald. The negative reactions over the smallest details to the rightful criticism of bigger issues left me feeling like this was going to be the absolute worst. While the film has its flaws, I’m okay that it's sandwiched between the light-hearted adventure flick and the yet-to-be-released sequel. The direction from David Yates isn't as stagnant as his other Potter adaptations, though the story can test your patience with the running time. Almost all of the performances are worth it – Eddie and Katharine were made to play Newt and Tina, Dan Fogler is the best addition to the wizarding world ever, Zoe Kravitz a compelling highly-awaited appearance (but seriously deserves better), Alison Sudol will break your heart, Ezra Miller and Claudia Kim are wonderfully captivating. As for the two bigwig additions, Jude Law serves up a satisfying young Dumbledore where you can see traces of both Richard Harris/Michael Gambon's versions, and Johnny Depp is adequate as Grindelwald (though I still prefer Colin Farrell). The story focuses on Grindelwald more than anything else, and that angle works to leave us questioning what we already know: what if he wins. Even though he left his dark mark all over this installment, more so than any other character, this is the first time I’m excited to see where this spin-off ventures next.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald? What did you think?

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