Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the latest film in the Wizarding World shared universe of films set in the same world created by the Harry Potter franchise. Though this series is less like a shared universe than others, as, despite being the tenth film in the greater franchise, is the first to really dig into the larger world in which these stories are set. The first eight were centered around Harry Potter and his years at Hogwarts, with the predecessor to this film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, feeling much more like a one-off film until the closing minutes. Unfortunately, the fact that this film is the first to bear the burden of connecting many different stories is what leads to its biggest weakness: the fact that this film doesn’t feel as coherent as it struggles to spin its many plates behind the scenes.
The main goal for this film is to establish Gellert Grindelweld as a feature antagonist for the next handful of films, as well as his conflict with Albus Dumbledoor. This is the first problem with this film: It’s called Fantastic Beasts, and it has very little to do with any fantastic beasts. There are a couple marketable creatures returning from the previous film, as well as a couple of new ones in small roles, but this is otherwise a very minor part of the film. While not a major issue in and of itself, it does lead directly to the second problem with this film: what the heck is Newt doing here?
Newt Scamander, the protagonist of the previous film, and one of several fun new characters set up in the previous film, has no real role here except for one that feels forced and arbitrary. Within the context of the film, he is asked by Dumbledore to stop Grindelwald form finding Credence, the young man who died at the end of the previous film, but who actually didn’t so that he could serve as a McGuffin again. There will be more about him later, but for now we will stick to Newt, and his new friends. Tina’s presence in this film is also minimal, as she has very little to do, and her part could have been filled by virtually any individual in the Wizarding World. Jacob and Queenie each have a little more to do, but even then, it is mostly so that they can set something up for the next film. One of the strongest aspects of this film is the fall of Queenie, who joins Grindelwald as she believes he has the power to change an unjust law/societal norm which prevent her and Jacob from getting married. This sets up her redemption thanks to Jacob as one of the largest and most interesting threads going into the next film, but still leaves this one a bit lacking.
Tina and Newt, two fun characters from the previous film, look around for a reason to be in the sequel.
With problem two out touched on, we can head to problem three which is one that symbolizes the core weaknesses of this film: who is the main character? As stated above, Newt was clearly the main character of the previous film with his three friends being nice supporting pieces. However, in this one, as no one character has enough to do, nor enough screen time, there is no main character. It could be Newt, Grindelwald, Dumbledore, Credence, or even Leta Lestrange who has a much larger role in this film than her mention in the previous one. Regardless, the lack of the ability to point to a main character is a symptom of the film’s general aimlessness. It is having to spend too much time establishing characters, backgrounds, motivations, intersecting plot lines and contrivances to be able to functionally stand on its own as a film. In other words, it suffers from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest syndrome.
Speaking of contrivances, it is about time we talk about Credence. He was dead, but now he is not. Not only that, he is apparently Dumbledore’s other previously unspoken of brother. Surprise! His role in the previous film was as a tragic figure who was manipulated and abused his entire life, and suffered an unfortunate death as a result. The events leading up to his death were an effective showcase of the depravity of Grindelwald and his pursuit of power. Now, all of that is undone, and Credence, whose real name is apparently Aurelius Dumbledore, is a central figure in the battle between Albus and Grindelwald who has never been heard of before. None of the stories told of what may be the greatest wizarding duel of the 20th century bothered to include a figure who was the brother of one of the participants and in the service of the other. Oops. Credence’s role in this film is emblematic of all of the problems this film in particular has.
Despite its conceptual issues, and all of the gripes I have mentioned up to this point, it is not a bad film. It has some fun sequences, and is in general an enjoyable experience while watching. If it was trimmed down with some ancillary characters excluded, it could have been another solid entry into the franchise, and a good set-up for future events. The setting of this film is spectacular, as it was with the previous film, and is one area where it is superior to the story of Harry Potter, which was pretty much in Hogwarts for a decade. This series sees our heroes traveling between some of the largest cities in the world in pre-depression-era America and Europe, and these cities look spectacular when doused with magic.
Overall, this film is clearly a transition entry in a larger story, and it suffers as a result. By having to juggle so many other narratives, it never quite gets a chance to stand on its own and tell its own compelling tale. With apparently three more films on the way which run up to the end of the second World War, let’s hope that future entries are able to stand on their own, and build the world through telling great stories, and not by simply being a 2 hour transition.