Film Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Convoluted and overstuffed with major characters, this second prequel to the Harry Potter canon nonetheless creates an encompassing, believable and highly grownup world whose most frightening aspect is how much it mirrors ours.
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An epic of evil that appears to be but half of a two-part movie—shades of Avengers: Infinity War!—this exquisitely mounted sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) skims past any narrative shortcomings through the complete and convincing totality of the wizarding world it creates, drawing you into another reality with perhaps more verisimilitude than any film in the Harry Potter canon. How so? Because along with all the supernatural spycraft, black-magic battles and the well-delivered promise of said beasts, this adventure set in 1927 New York, London and Paris pushes a relatable sense of people—people who must attend meetings, take work assignments and try to win back their jobs, people who get dressed in their Untouchables best to go out and get their Capone.

This very juxtaposition of a workaday reality that just happens to involve beings of immense power grounds the movie, and while I wouldn't call it documentary-like by any means, it feels real. When we eventually see a sorcerer's depiction of what we dangerous non-magical humans are about to embark upon a dozen years hence—atomic bomb and all—it makes magic seem nothing more than an indigenous group's natural defenses.

And in this silver-tongued way—using the worst of humanity, painting us as warmongers and killers and, one assumes, some good people—the pureblood wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) plays to a base that believes it is the purebloods' manifest destiny to have dominion over the world. He just wants to make wizards great again. Mudblood wizards—those born to wizardry despite having no magical parents or only one such—are the rabble. As for us non-magical muggles—well, a few of us get killed in this film, even though unarmed, and with no consequence. The fact the movie climaxes with a stadium assemblage evoking the propaganda of Nazi rallies—complete with über-Aryan Grindelwald, a bleached-blond, pale-skinned avatar of pure bloodlines—isn't lost on anyone with a sense of history.

Picking up from the last film, we find Grindelwald escaping from American captivity during his transfer to London. The opening sequence is truly harrowing as he methodically, ruthlessly, even sadistically kills wizards and bat-winged horses alike. And that's not even the worst he or his minions do once they reach Paris six months later—the most heinous instances thankfully off-screen.

So, in order to challenge this demonic demagogue, why do both the Ministry of Magic and the famed and powerful professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) want Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne)—a magizoologist and seemingly high-functioning autistic who just wants to study and care for mystical animals—to be the one to confront and kill this fearsome führer? It has to do, one suspects, with the idea of the least among us standing up to the most powerful among us, with some of the powerful seeing the potential in this David. It's a strong theme—we root for the guy—and a compelling narrative: How will he do it?

David Yates and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling herself, reprising their respective roles as director and screenwriter, overstuff the film with perhaps a few too many major characters than it needs, leading to a revelatory scene of "I'm your blood-relative, he's not your blood-relative, who you thought was your dead blood-relative, but he's really…" It's all a bit soap-operatic. I was expecting someone to be a long-lost twin. With amnesia.

That issue ultimately proves minor amid the engrossing and complex insersection of competing needs. Ministry of Magic auror—or special agent—Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) needs to bring in the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is on the run with his love, Nagini (Claudia Kim). But Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) needs Credence for a different agenda. Credence just wants to find his real mother. And Grindelwald, of course, puppetmasters things so that the innocent but powerful Credence will simply come to him. Meanwhile, the first movie's star-crossed lovers Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a sorceress, and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a human, continue to deal with wizarding laws against, basically, miscegenation. And does Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) really love her fiancé Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), Newt's brother, or does she burn for shy ginger Newt—whose veterinary assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), also has the hots for him, making us wonder what love spell this guy is using?

Redmayne as said redhead stands out in a uniformly strong cast. Ever uneasy, unable to look people in the eye, until he does, his Newt is a constantly churning mass of nervous energy—or at least the stiff-upper-Brit version of that. The actor gives the character so much going on beneath the surface, it's no wonder the powers-that-be think there's something special there.

Particular kudos go also to the production design, a sort of ergonomic Escher, that envelops you in this world—fanciful yet practical, and seeming at any moment as if a doorway or a stairway might take you someplace magical. While that's certainly to be expected in the Harry Potter canon, it seems somehow more magical in this adult world than in the original juvenile/young-adult fiction—more magical, yet simultaneously, contradictorily, more tangible, more authentic. The crimes of Grindelwald come off, perhaps, as all too real.