Prequels are a flashy storytelling trend that is also incredibly problematic and difficult to pull off. There haven’t been a lot of prequels that lived up to the understandably high expectations that were placed on them. Most of the time these stories end up being disappointing the existing audience and fail to capture a new one. The reason for this is pretty obvious, how do you tell an interesting story if everyone already knows the ending? The difficulty lies in the lack of stakes; it’s difficult to get invested in any peril or complication because it isn’t real. That difficulty is also extended to the characters. If the characters in the prequel are so important how come they weren’t mentioned later on? These are inherent problems in prequels that are difficult to navigate and ring true especially in fantasy since the characters and stories are larger than life. Generally, these stories turn into a complicated mess of plot. A rehashing of something that was mentioned in the larger story but now with significantly more detail. This was the challenge that author (and now screenwriter) J.K. Rowling decided to take on two years ago as she went back to the Harry Potter universe with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That prequel was able to avoid a lot of these pitfalls with crafty storytelling, including leaving the fact that it was a prequel until a reveal at the end. The result was a very good film that captured the essence of what made Harry Potter so great, was able to stand on its own, and was a good lead in to a series a films. Unfortunately for its sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, those prequel pitfalls became a problem. The result this time was a well-made film that feels incomplete as a story.
With this being the second in a series of 5 films, Crimes of Grindelwald, should be thought about in two different ways; as a stand-alone story and as a small part of a much larger narrative. This puts the film in a tough spot because it has to do so much and that strain is felt throughout this film. There was a lot of plot in this film, to its detriment. The overstuffed story left little time for magic, which is what makes this world so special. While there is plenty of magic happening it’s minus the whimsy and wonder that makes the world captivating. The only time it’s present is when Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is tracking Tina (Katherine Waterston) in France. We see some magic unlike any other that we’ve seen before and it’s exciting. It’s the type of beautiful insight into this magical world that Rowling excels at and that fans love so much. It’s a shot of much needed life and fun into the film that is never really matched again. That is the unfortunate part of this film; there is no time for any of that because there is so much plot to get through. Crimes of Grindelwald feels more like a middle episode of a television season than it does its own film because its purpose is to set the table for future films more so than its own narrative. Even the main plotline of getting Credence (Ezra Miller) before Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) doesn’t fully resolve itself by the film’s end. We are left with more questions than answers because those questions are what drive the future films. This is made all the more complicated because this film isn’t bad, far from it.
Overstuffed narratives are not uncommon in Hollywood these days and typically they tank a film because the story is so messy. While the overstuffed plot hurts Crimes of Grindelwald it doesn’t kill it because Rowling is such a master storyteller. She manages to create a lot of interesting storylines. On their own each of these plots would be interesting to follow, therein lies the frustration. We don’t spend enough time with any of the characters or with any particular plot. This is where Rowling being a novelist is very present. With Harry Potter she had several hundred pages over the course of several books to bring a story to its conclusion and tie up all the loose ends. With a film you only have a couple hundred pages, even with the promise of five films there is more of an urgency to make each film stand on its own. Crimes of Grindelwald is a good film that promises to fit into the series very well but on its own it isn’t all that compelling. As a film it feels like a companion piece to the next film (or films), much like Mockingjay-Part 1 was to Mockingjay-Part 2, and like Part 1 this film feels incomplete on its own.
As complicated as Crimes of Grindelwald is, there is still so much to love about the film, most notably the performances from the cast. Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston returned as Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein. Their chemistry continued to shine making their love story one of the most compelling parts of the whole series. Also returning is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Jacob Kowalski and Queenie Goldstein. They continued to provide an interesting relationship that is fun, easy to root for, and deepens throughout the film. While the returning cast was great, it was the newcomers that rounded it out so well and help to make the film as enjoyable as it was. Johnny Depp’s performance as Grindelwald was excellent. He was a major question mark coming out of the first film because he can be so hit or miss but he silenced all questions by making Grindelwald a terrifying and compelling villain. My favorite performance in the whole film lies with Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore. The pressure to get this right is incredibly high and if he gets it wrong the whole series is in jeopardy, but he does more than just get it right. He is the perfect Dumbledore. He was able to capture the sparkle behind his eye and the genius behind his unorthodoxy. He’s weird but there is never any question that he is not one to cross. Law fills up the screen with his performance and when he was absent it was noticeable. These characters prevent the film from ever being bad because these characters are so good and so fun that any amount of time with them is good. Technically Crimes of Grindelwald is also very well done which heightens the experience because everything you are hearing and seeing is pleasing. James Newton Howard’s score is strong and fits into the wizarding world seamlessly. It rises and falls beautifully with the magic of the world and the events taking place. Most beautifully is when we see that first grand shot of Hogwarts that is almost as magical as the very first time we saw it. The score is perfectly matched with Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography to make that shot in particular so dynamic. When we sweep across the cross of the mountain to see the school in all its majesty, we know we are in the wizarding world and where we are supposed to be. That shot is a crucial part of the film and it works perfectly, as does the rest of Rousselot’s cinematography. These parts of the film bring the whole thing together and hold it up when it gets bogged down by plot. It’s a good and rewatchable film because all of these things were done so well.
Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald is a unique and complicated film. It’s unique because of the situation that it is in, being one part of a larger narrative. It’s complicated because you need the rest of the story to properly understand how good or bad the film truly is. With that being said it is more than worth your time. The film may be overstuffed with plot but it isn’t confusing or complicated. The story being presented has a beginning, middle and end, with all of the characters having clearly defined motivations, which is more that you can say for half the films that have come out this year. The only problem with the film is that it is incomplete. This film is enjoyable the way Mockingjay-Part 1 was or how the seventh episode of a ten-episode TV season is still enjoyable. There is fun and excitement in the set up, and that is evident with Crimes of Grindelwald. This table setting was as good as you could ask for; the hope is that Rowling’s ending will pay off in a satisfying way. If history is any indication, then she most certainly will and this film is the start of that.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Director: David Yates Writer: J.K. Rowling Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Johnny Depp, Zoe Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol & Jude Law Release Date: November 16th Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 2 hours and 14 minutes