Walking out of the theater a couple years ago after seeing the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — J. K. Rowling’s prequel series to Harry Potter– I was under the immediate impression that the movie would work better as a miniseries. While good chunks of the film were dry and forgettable, I liked enough of it that I was convinced Rowling’s sprawling Wizarding World offered an extreme overabundance of colorful characters and stories worth watching. And while a few two and a half hour films weren’t big enough to hold and tell these stories, given more time these ideas could be flushed out and explored to their full potential. In hindsight maybe this more wishful –and even fanboyish– thinking was the result of what this series had meant to me growing up; Harry Potter was my gateway drug to reading and I was captivated by the universe. I wanted to experience the magic that extended beyond the corpse of Lord Voldemort.
I still do.
I still believe there are more Harry Potter stories worth telling. But after watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second of five planned movies in this series, it’s become painfully clear just what this series is and what it needs to succeed.
It doesn’t need more runtime. It needs a damned editor.
In all honesty, maybe it’s unfair –unwise even– to bet against J. K. Rowling at this point. She has five movies to right the ship and the overarching narratives of the original Harry Potter series showed just how masterful a grip Rowling has over storytelling. The dangling threads of characters and plotlines that may seem like excess now, could very likely be woven into a masterful tapestry by the end. But at the very least with the first two additions to this new franchise, I can definitively say Rowling is suffering from the same self-fulfilling fate that has doomed world-building auteurs, like herself, in the past. The most obvious example of this (and probably the one you’re going to hear most about elsewhere) is George Lucas’ Star War prequels, although there are numerous other instances of this pitfall such as Tolkien’s posthumously published Silmarillion. Essentially, after creating a new universe for his original story (Star Wars), Lucas fell so in love with Biblical-sized creation that he felt compelled to share and create all the excess intricate details of his world. The result, while admittedly often entertaining and fun to witness the sheer scope of it all, was ultimately a god-forsaken mess. And while the Fantastic Beasts series does not reach nearly the same level of incompetent dialogue and sheer stupidity as the prequels –Rowling is simply too talented of an author for that– it’s been just as much as a disappointment. Because a good Wizarding World prequel doesn’t need famous characters and locations shoehorned in for the hell of it (honestly I don’t care about learning Voldemort’s snake’s backstory), it needs an interesting and coherent story.
And there are hints of this. There are many scenes that work and it is because of them that I am writing with a stronger feeling of frustration rather than abject hopelessness. Centered around the MacGuffin from the previous movie, Creedence (Ezra Miller) –a lonely orphan with a serious Jekyll and Hide ailment that grants him unmatched magical power — The Crimes of Grindelwald pin-balls around a Game of Thrones-sized cast of characters as they all attempt to reach the boy (read: weapon) first. The personal motives for each character are (rightfully so) complicated, but the film essentially pits the fearmongering populist Grindewald (played exceedingly well by Johnny Depp although sorely missing the last films casting choice of Collin Ferrel) against Dumbledore (an always excellent Jude Law), the ministry, and the “good guys”. It is this direct power struggle that succeeds the most throughout the movie, providing us with bigger and better characters and greyer questions.
Albeit in a small role, Dumbeldore’s cruelly manipulative nature gets a chance to rear its fascinating, ugly head, while Johnny Depp’s fearsome Grindelwald is able to throw off the overly simplistic depictions of evil that plagued that original series and show timely glimpses of a villain more suitable than Voldemort for today’s times. Without giving too much away, the character of Grindelwald single-handedly carries the tantalizing climax that both saved the movie in my eyes and provided legitimate hope for future installments. In fact, if the movie had lived up to its very title and made Grindelwald a starring character rather then (quite possibly due to lack of money) relegating him to a borderline cameo, then this would be a completely different review.
Instead, The Crimes of Grindelwald gets utterly lost in a convoluted maze of uninteresting and overly narrative subplots and characters. The scenes with the starring Newt Scamander and his gang are funny at times, but not nearly thematic or endearing enough to be any worthwhile in the end (which is a big problem considering they’re the protagonists for this entire franchise). While Newt’s awkwardly inward personality may read better in a novel that gives us the chance to take a dive inside his head, in these movies, for Eddie Redmayne it’s hard to gain any sympathy at all for a character that is so cold. All the while, a forgettable group of side characters that would really even be considered excessive in one of Rowling 5,000 page novels (maybe some of them were from the ministry or something? I honestly can’t remember at this point) further undercut any semblance of coherent storytelling.
A rough start to this new franchise doesn’t mean the end. Look no further than the first two (rather not good) Harry Potter movies and how the series was able to quickly bounce back. But to do that, to make a successful comeback, Rowling and the creative team at Warner Brothers need to make a change. They need to get their story straight. They need an editor. They need a co-writer. And maybe, just maybe, they need to take a good, long look at the Rowling’s role in these projects.
Because similar to what Harry was told in the original series: Ms. Rowling, you can’t fight this war on your own.