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Friday, November 23, 2018

The Second Fantastic Beasts Movie Multiplies the First's Problems

I’ve been trying to best summarize my experience watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and I think the best I’ve got so far is “I didn’t hate it, but it has a lot of flaws, and I struggle to imagine anyone caring much about it at all absent a strong love of Harry Potter”. A mostly spoiler-free review:

There’s a lot going on here, almost like it’s condensing 600 to 700 pages like some of the later Harry Potter movies…but there’s no source material here that the movie is adapting from. It’s just stuffed full of characters and plot threads and details like the books, but doesn’t have time to really focus in on any of them. And yet, feels almost like a filler episode in a TV show, throwing out a few sort of interesting bits that make you go “Oh. Okay, I guess,” but otherwise treading water while you wait for the real “exciting stuff” to come around.

I almost wrote about this spin-off series two years ago after the first movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but I didn’t find myself impassioned enough to write a full article. The problems with the first one largely came down to the fact that there were two different main narrative threads going on, they didn’t really overlap or compliment each other very much (until the very end, where they were loosely tied together), and both were worse off for it. The sequel, instead of using that movie’s worth of set up to try and establish a sort of main story going forward, instead decides to explode it into even more character arcs to follow, making it even more claustrophobic and underdeveloped.


And that crowding has real, negative effects on every aspect of the story. Because you don’t have time to delve into other important things, so major aspects like character motivations or crucial worldbuilding are left to the viewer to fill in the blanks. Everyone is instead given one-line general directions and a character trait or two, and then they just sort of head off in that direction. You can kind of guess some finer nuances if you’re familiar with the larger series…but that’s usually not a sign of a strong story.

And more than that, the crowding just feels so unnecessary. So many of the things that were included just left me with the question of “Why?” Why was this important enough to warrant inclusion at the expense of other things? Why does this improve the series? Minor spoilers in the next paragraph, skip it if you want to remain totally unspoiled, although the only parts I’ll be explicit about are things that were known pre-release. Skip to after the dashes if you want to avoid them, though:


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Why is there conflict between Newt and Tina? It doesn’t feel necessary, it’s based on a basic misunderstanding that would feel cheesy in a bad sitcom, and the resolution just gets us back to basically where we were after the first movie. Why is Leta LeStrange important? The movie clearly wants us to feel she’s important, and she was built up in the previous movie, so we’re supposed to see her as part of the main cast, but then the movie only uses her as a plot contrivance in other characters’ storylines (including that dumb Newt-Tina thing) rather than important in her own right, and acts like her story is wrapped up by the film’s end. Why is Nagini in this movie? Making her a cursed witch is an awkward decision for a lot of reasons, and if it adds anything, it’s a profound discomfort to the original series, nothing for these spin-offs. Why do wizards have spells to perfectly recreate a scene from twelve hours ago and creating homing objects, but none to just find or contact each other even over short distances, or correct enchanted papers, or any number of other easy fixes, other than “that’s how we need magic to work here to drive the plot”? Why are bloodlines suddenly important? This feels like something we dealt with in the original Harry Potter series (the answer was: “they really aren’t”), and we get some in-story reasons to justify it, but the movie also seems to try and frame it as an important question despite the audience’s knowledge otherwise. It just makes it feel like cheap build-up to give the “twist” at the end punch. And these are only the especially big questions; I could definitely go on, but I think I’ve gotten my point across.


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After watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I couldn’t help but remember back when I was excited for the Fantastic Beasts movies. Back when they were announced, I remember how refreshing the premise sounded for a prequel series; instead of over-explaining events hinted at by the books, things like Dumbledore’s history, they were going to focus on fleshing out the world more, with stories only tangentially related to the original story of Harry Potter.

Every detail that trickled out since then has slowly sapped that energy. We found out that Grindelwald would be included, then we learned that the trilogy would become five films, then we heard that the second movie would feature Dumbledore in a large role. And now, here we are after movie two, and with what’s left, it seems like we’re looking at…a trilogy of movies dealing largely with the Dumbledore/Grindelwald conflict that was hinted at back in the original books. Right back where people speculated a prequel would go for years after Harry Potter ended.

It makes these two movies almost feel like a prequel series to the real prequel series, and that’s unfortunate. A guy wandering the magic world looking for strange creatures and maybe occasionally bumping into Harry Potter-adjacent things sounded like such a pleasant and enjoyable pitch to build off of.

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