I’ve been cautiously optimistic about Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald since the first trailer. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry and muggles, on the other these kinds of expansions can be problematic or fall short of the magic inherent in a freshman introduction to a world (even if that freshman introduction spanned 7 books with 8 corresponding film adaptations). The original Fantastic Beasts was a fun romp, a nice little booster shot of the magic world, but aside from the cute little reveal of Grindlewald and a tie into history briefly touched on in the Harry Potter books? It felt like an excursion.
I’m pleased to report that Crimes of Grindelwald is like the opening of Diagon Alley the morning after Harry found out he was a wizard: the first film was merely prologue to a bigger adventure that begins in this film. We’re already promised 3 more films in this saga, and where Grindelwald’s reveal at the end of the first film could have been merely a cute happenstance appearance of someone we’ve heard of from the prior saga, we’ve now set out on telling the story of Dumbledore’s greatest battle and victory (recall that his defeat of Grindelwald is one of his most noted achievements on his Chocolate Frogs card).
What impresses me most is the level of nuance and complexity brought to this conflict. Simply put, the Harry Potter saga is largely a story of black and white, good versus evil, with pretty clear cut lines of the heroes and villains and those too dumb or cowardly to pick a side (and end up helping evil). Grindelwald isn’t quite so easy a villain.
Without spoiling anything, Grindelwald does the mandatory villain mission statement speech to a crowd of followers at a point in the film, and it’s tremendous. He shares a vision of wizards seizing control of the world not to subjugate or kill, but to save muggles from themselves. Is that really so terrible and hard to believe? This film happens to be set in 1927, so muggles destroying themselves shouldn’t be too far a row to hedge.
The brilliance is that just like in *cough* real world politics, there are dog whistles for the magical supremacists to rally behind. He certainly invokes “love” and “freedom” as ideals, but in the same breath speaks of non-magical humans having a role and place in society. By the end of it, you’re left feeling as if Voldemort could’ve dialed back the theatrics just a tad and been a bit more successful.
I won’t say it’s all good though. I do have some quibbles with them leaning way too hard into Newt being the heartthrob of seemingly every woman he meets. His assistant in his magical beast zoo, Bunty, exists only to swoon over him in that early scene and is heard from no more after he leaves only a hastily scribbled note telling her he’s leaving for Paris. The Lita Lestrange romantic history seemed unnecessarily forced and kind of cringey at times given the other leg of that triangle, but the history between her and Newt does benefit the overall story.
I saw this film on Saturday night and waited this long to write this review up because something was nagging at me I couldn’t quite put a finger upon and it struck me just this morning: For a film named Fantastic Beasts, there was a surprising dearth of beasts. While I understand the focus is now on the war with Grindelwald, it felt like there was surprisingly less of a menagerie of creatures than its predecessor, but maybe someone will do a count and prove me wrong. It may just be that the first film specifically focused on the hunt to recollect the creatures, whereas this one they’re more seamlessly woven into the larger plot.
My final point I want to put out there is regarding Nagini. There was a lot of ink spilled about the possible problems of Rowling retconning Nagini’s origin to that of a cursed human who eventually transforms permanently into the snake we saw in the original Harry Potter saga. Racial/Misogynist undertones of the affliction and the character’s life as a star attraction in a magical freak show aside- I’m fascinated to see the arc that leads to her eventual servitude to Voldemort: how she’ll go from witnessing one Wizard tyrant to serving another more blatantly evil one is going to be interesting. I’m willing reserve final judgment on the character in favor of seeing where we go from here with her.
Not just Nagini, but the whole saga overall: we need to wait and see where this goes. Based on the foundation laid by this film we should all be excited to see where it goes. If you’re on the fence about this Harry Potter Universe expansion? Hop on down and give into your magical side. It’s a great adventure.