Dumbledore. Grindelwald. Lestrange. Flamel. Nagini.
The above is a disparate series of Wizarding World names and references. When you look at these names like this, you acknowledge that they are relevant to the Harry Potter franchise. You acknowledge they are important parts of its history. Do you care that I’ve written this random list of names though? No. Not particularly. That’s the feeling one gets from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a film so obsessed with attaching these titles to its characters that it forgets to make us care about them at all, believing their connection with other characters will hand-wave away all that tedious need for development.
“Though the film goes to great efforts to connect these threads together, there’s something wholly unengaging about the constant shifting between them, never getting enough time with an individual plot to invest in it”
Set in 1927, the film documents the rise of fascist wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), and the attempts to stop him by magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and friends, a quest assigned to them by Grindelwald’s ex-partner, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). This is of course, when the film isn’t getting tangled in one of its many subplots that, regardless of being connected to this main storyline, often don’t convince us why we should be particularly bothered about them. These include the identity of extremely powerful magical creature Credence (Ezra Miller), an undercooked love triangle, and an absurdly convoluted trip into family histories. Though the film goes to great efforts to connect these threads together, there’s something wholly unengaging about the constant shifting between them, never getting enough time with an individual plot to invest in it.
It’s made all the more exhausting by the fact there are the seeds of engaging ideas in there. Grindelwald is a character that uses his ‘silver tongue’ to great advantage, and there are moments where watching him charm and seduce his followers starts to intrigue. But CUT. We’ve moved on from that just as it was getting interesting, and now we’re following Credence as he mopes around with Nagini (Claudia Kim, who is scandalously relegated to looking sad when Credence is sad), trying to find out his true identity. Miller as Credence is absolutely fantastic with what he is given, and works his hardest to make the character a vulnerable, real person. However, just as we’re beginning to get attached to this lost, confused young man – CUT. We’re off to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) having an extended flashback about her Hogwarts days, as it’s just occurred to Rowling we don’t actually know anything about her and she’s going to be important soon.
What salvages the film from this messy, indecisive screenplay, is the wizarding world itself. Whilst I wasn’t exactly riveted by what was going on, the film was made a pleasant enough experience simply by the world it’s set in being so creative and charming. The parts when the audience I was with and I became most immersed in the film were the little touches, the secret doors and roads in Paris, the wonders of the moving archives at the ministry, and the eponymous magical creatures (I was a big fan of the baby Niffler). It’s a testament to the world Rowling has built that it can still enchant even when paired with lackluster material, and director Yates and his visual effects team deliver some really lovely little touches on the periphery, that make it feel like a full blooded world. It’s a place you want to spend time in, and the one thing this spin-off does take advantage of is the opportunity for world building.
Paired with this is that the majority of the cast are very likeable, and manage to bring pathos to even the most limited of screentime. Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein has a potentially emotional and moving subplot made unconvincing by the lack of time spent with it, but never lets that stop her from delivering the goods. By its climax, you’re almost sold on it, entirely thanks to her. Eddie Redmayne continues to impress as a leading man, being one of the few characters given space to breathe and grow, giving a typical ‘lovable outsider’ role a real spark that sets it above others. And Jude Law’s debut as Dumbledore is a subtle, convincing portrayal that leaves you with no doubt as to the man he will become. Much like the setting of the wizarding world, these characters create a pleasant atmosphere that makes the film more enjoyable than the narrative that drives them.
However, narrative is indeed what seems to drive Crimes of Grindelwald; it just has no idea which direction it’s driving in. There’s been arguments that Rowling is a novelist, and that this is set up for later installments where it will all pay off. For pay off to work though, you need to be invested in the action in the first place. We cared what happened to Harry, Ron and Hermoine because early films like Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets focused on them, took time to let us get to know them, instead of telling us they’re going to be important down the line so we should care about them. Just because we’re aware Nagini becomes Voldemort’s snake, doesn’t mean she’s excused from having a personality in this film. What redeems it is that I did want to spend more time with certain aspects of the plot with potential. So perhaps if Rowling whittles down on characters for Fantastic Beasts 3: The Secret Father of Hagrid’s Dog, or whatever it’s eventually called, the franchise can regain some of what made Potter special.