The incomprehensible Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald proves J.K. Rowling is her own worst enemy
Eternal return (or eternal recurrence, as Friedrich Nietzsche called it) is a philosophical theory that posits that everything that has ever happened or will happen will happen again, over and over. Here’s an abstract example of the idea for you: In the mid-to-late 90s, Star Wars creator George Lucas started fiddling around with his beloved franchise, first releasing heavily rehashed and deeply hated “special editions” of his original trilogy before kick-starting a prequel series a few years later, a new trilogy of films that many consider to be a collection of embarrassing failures that nearly destroyed what was arguably the biggest film property in the world.
Fast forward around two decades later and J.K. Rowling, mastermind of the sometimes hilariously similar Harry Potter franchise, is following in Lucas’s footsteps: she released a controversial sequel to the original series in the form of a play, started an entire website to release increasingly convoluted lore, and then started a prequel series of her own in the form of the Fantastic Beasts saga. At first glance, it didn’t seem like the worst choice; for the majority of its brisk two hours, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was an innocent, charming fleshing out of the Potterverse that gave it a fresh context while standing out as its own adventure. Then, in the film’s final minutes, Colin Farrell transformed into a bleach-blonde Johnny Depp, revealing the film’s villain was infamous Potter backstory character Gellert Grindelwald the entire time. The illusion that this new property would be free of indentured servitude to the original series was instantly shattered. Visions of Jar Jar Binks flashed across audiences’s eyes. But the fun of the rest of the film still provided some faint glimmer of hope. Maybe the charms of these witches and wizards could save the franchise from collapsing in the same vein that upended Lucas’s legacy all those years ago?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Time, after all, is a flat circle.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the newest entry in what Rowling and Warner Bros. have now trademarked as the Wizarding World franchise, takes the series in a direction perhaps even worse than what fans could have imagined after Depp’s gotcha appearance. It’s a film that’s honestly difficult to summarize because despite its long run-time, nothing really happens in the movie at all outside of an endless barrage of confusing world-building and uninspired references. There’s a basic plot, which sees protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) being sent to Paris by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley) to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, Justice League), the first film’s tortured orphan whose difficult childhood and abuse gave birth to powerful magical creature inside of him called an Obscurus. Grindelwald wants Credence for himself, seeing his power as an opportunity to kill Dumbledore, the only wizard he deems capable of stopping his mission to eradicate the world of non-magical beings. The quest brings a dizzying number of supporting characters out of the woodwork, from Scamander’s original crew from the first film to new additions including his childhood love interest Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road), brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and later Voldemort servant/serpent Nagini (Claudia Kim).
Most of these characters exist solely to provide additional Potter trivia facts, turning the film into an overstuffed, aimless affair that seeks only to set up future installments which will in turn set up future installments. The script, the first by solely Rowling herself, plays out as if written on a drug binge: scenes come and go at a breakneck pace with often little to no explanation of what is going on, building to lore reveals so incomprehensible that it’s difficult to imagine even the most studious of Potter fans will have a clue as to what’s going on. Rowling also frequently breaks her own rules and forgets her own world-building, suddenly changing the names of locations/magical agencies or blatantly ignoring the timeline she invented (to think Jude Law will be Michael Gambon in ten years time is some Cher is Meryl Streep’s mom madness). It only gets worse as the film goes on, culminating in a final twenty minutes of garish effects broken up by so many twists that you’ll start to wonder if this thing is a parody. To call it overblown fanfiction would be an insult to fanfiction.
The worst sin of all this is there’s no real sense of magic to be found in the film’s bloated two hours. Almost absent is the sense of joy that perforated from the first film, which used its creature-focused elements to make the Potterverse still feel like an untapped well of wonder. With very little attention given to the titular beasts and the magic set-pieces feeling less thrilling than ever, it begs the question of whether or not this once consistently entertaining franchise is running out of steam. David Yates, who has directed the Potter franchise since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix and provided some of its most iconic moments, is clearly losing his groove as none of the action or effects here feel worthy of the film’s colossal budget. But hey, at least the Nifflers are still cute, right?
If there’s anything of substance to be found in this mess, it’s in the performances. Redmayne’s Newt is still a sympathetic, alluring outsider who consistently makes it easy to root for him. Law is an admittedly brilliant Dumbledore, capturing all the warmth of the character while providing his own spin of young charm to liven up the role. Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol’s Jacob and Queenie are still fun reliefs from Scamander’s bookishness, albeit with a sadder (perhaps unearned) twist here, and Kravtiz is an appropriately moodier foil to his heroic heart. Wasted is the lovely Katherine Waterston (Alien: Covenant), whose charisma and resolve in the first film is snuffed out in favor of bitterness here, highlighting the film’s inherent problem with women. All the women in this film, and I do mean all of them, exist only as love interests for the male characters. In the franchise of Hermione Granger, this is the best Rowling could do?
The woman problem brings us to Depp, who despite allegations (and even weak, manipulative half-admissions) of domestic abuse against ex-wife Amber Heard and frequent disruptions on sets, was allowed by Warner Bros. to continue to star in the franchise, even given a blessing by Rowling herself. It’s easy to say that the social media firestorm surrounding his continued role in the franchise is not worth the trouble. Depp hasn’t given a good performance in years, phoning it in with every role as if living a couple inches outside of his body and we’re watching him sleepwalk. That doesn’t change with his starring role as Grindelwald. The role is Depp-brand ridiculous, complete with bad monologues and corny details such as his frequent smoking out of a skull hookah to provide visions. He simply doesn’t bring anything of substance to the role, speaking his lines with all the gravitas of an artist eager for his paycheck. Why Hollywood gives a pass to this frequently mediocre actor is indicative of a deeper problem with giving men power in the industry, and watching Depp sheepishly sneer and quip here isn’t going to erase the need for a conversation about that issue.
Rowling has provided her first colossal misfire, a film so misguided that a moviegoer not initiated into Pottermania would be utterly baffled by why this franchise was ever a hit in the first place. She blatantly ignores everything that made the original series successful, lazily forking out an entry seriously lacking any sense of wonder and built up on stakes that are plainly artificial. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald plays more like an inconsequential TV episode than a film, and it gives you little reason to turn in for the next chapter other than perhaps the chance to unravel what the hell is going on in its wildly confusing ending. Move over, Mr. Lucas. There’s a new self-sabotaging hack in town.