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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // March 12, 2019
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 26, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

It's tough to be a fan of the Harry Potter franchise and not be as into its Fantastic Beasts prequel spinoff, especially considering the participation of author J.K. Rowling as screenwriter. For all its charmingly rendered creatures, ‘20s-era appearance, and nudge-wink references to the story proper, David Yates' next foray in the wildly-popular universe carries over the awkwardly heavy tones and stilted, erratic characterization from his later, less cinematically successful entries. Much like the protracted two-parter Deathly Hallows, Fantastic Beasts also feels every bit like it's obligated to continuation instead of genuinely inspired. While similar observations apply to the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, they are relatively secondary to the film's more pressing missteps: Yates and Rowling have confused ostentation with beastly wonder, overestimated the draw power of the characters' depths, and ultimately assumed more Wizarding World meant they could overextend a plot where little actually evolves leading into a third film. The result is, quite easily, the worst Potter film yet.

Some spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will naturally follow from hereon out, the most notable being that evil mastermind Grindelwald, whom was unmasked at the end of Fantastic Beasts to reveal a graying Johnny Depp, has been imprisoned by America's wizard law enforcement. While being transferred from the max security facility there to London to be tried for his crimes -- always a brilliant move; especially so for an immensely powerful dark wizard -- Grindelwald breaks loose from their control and, naturally, begins to rally the troops. As the Ministry of Magic seeks the whereabouts of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the gray-area villain from the first film, and as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) attempts to return to his normal traveler's life as a beast wrangler, Grindelwald's influence spreads and draws in those who might be considered allies to the Ministry. Much of their hope lies in the hands of a familiar name whose past once intersected with Grindelwald: Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is at this point the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

One of the complaints thrown out at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was that it felt overly stretched-out, that the novel's narrative had been prolonged so the plot could be split into two money-making blockbusters, and that, by itself, it came across as buildup without significant development or payoff. The Crimes of Grindelwald does just about the same, but without the guarantee of a second half to resolve any cliffhangers or justifying the plot's lack of advancement. Now, let's not kid ourselves: there'll be another Fantastic Beasts film; however, the substance of this one suffers from the same presumptuousness as its Harry Potter counterpart, using this gap-filling "middle" entry to extend the story longer than it should. When you look at the state of the Fantastic Beasts plotline at the beginning and at the end of The Crimes of Grindelwald, it's hard not to come away from it without thinking that … well, not much has really happened, and that's over two hours of things not happening. This feels like buying time until more interesting things happen, which can also be viewed as wasting time.

There's a difference between things not happening and things not changing, and that's where The Crimes of Grindelwald hopes to make up for its lack of forward movement in the story, by exploring how the characters change in response to things learned about themselves, others, and the Wizarding World. J.K. Rowling had a challenge ahead of her: devotees to the Harry Potter franchise have a loose grasp on where the events of this prequel -- and the next -- will ultimately end up, while more casual fans can be fickle in their interest levels behind seeing what's already happened in past events in the Harry Potter universe. With an emphasis on Grindelwald and a brewing war between noble wizards and those who practice the dark arts, one can't help but ultimately think to themselves that, yeah, everything's going to turn out fine from all this; however, the interest falls on how certain "good guys" would be persuaded into cooperating with Grindelwald's agenda. The answers, widespread as they may be, aren't very creative, taking cues from X-Men and the Underworld series in the villain's appeals to superiority. For being the series' second most powerful dark wizard, Grindelwald and Johnny Depp's performance within it are unfathomably bland, leading one to miss Colin Farrell.

Sure, there's more going on in The Crimes of Grindelwald than exploring its lackluster villain. Rowling also reveals more about the recurring heroes in her Fantastic Beasts prequel universe; however, their reentry reeks of sequel shenanigans. Newt Scamander remains something of a tourist throughout the events of this film, with just enough of a personal connection through his brother -- Theseus, an auror with Britain's Ministry of Magic investigating the whereabouts of Credence -- to ensure that he appears relevant to what's going on. Other characters from Fantastic Beasts return through mechanical or, at times, nonsensical methods, bringing back quirky mood relievers Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) in a way that undercuts where they ended up in the first, while also working Newt's half-romantic interest Tina (Katherine Waterston), an American auror, into the fray. New characters Theseus and the familiarly-named Lita Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) add echoes of depth to the film's dramatic endeavors, yet neither are strong enough as standalone presences to latch onto them, merely servicing the backstory that's disguised as a plot here.

David Yates and his team of both practical and digital wizards certainly know how to generate a visually gripping universe, from the precision of costumes to ornate, weathered set craftsmanship and the digital rendering of beasts from one's imagination. Boy, does it feel shallow in The Crimes of Grindelwald, though, as if they're parlor tricks designed to hold one's fleeting attention span instead of to lock one's captivation with a world being created. Scenes with new beasts are lengthy and majestic, holding little purpose beyond reemphasizing Newt's preference for them above humans. There's a point where key characters navigate the shifting pillars of a magic archive that taps into into a sense of awe not unlike seeing Gringotts or the Ministry of Magic for the first time, though that gets weakened by the arrival of questionably rendered -- though, admittedly, still slick and intimidating -- CG antagonists. And yes, in a continuation of sequel desperation, The Crimes of Grindelwald departs to Hogwarts so it can interact with a dashing young Albus Dumbledore, impeccably played by Jude Law, though the sight of its architecture, levitating candles and such actually set the stage for numerous inconsistencies and oddities in the plot, from confusing backstories and arbitrary plot constraints to outright holes.

For all its grandeur and deep interest in the setting's history, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald struggles to, frankly, have much of a point. Seemingly big things occur near its end -- from a dazzling and persistent onslaught of magical blue infernos to a key reveal about the lineage of the mysterious Credence Barebone -- yet after the flames die out and the shock value wears off, the ramifications of what's transpired lack the sort of concrete substance or immediacy that makes one want to know what comes out of it. Rowling has a great time exploring these events that ultimately build into her world that's enchanted so many people across the globe, but she's done so within the space of a story that lacks momentum and excitement until the script decides that it's reached a point where it's necessary. The pacing suffers, the focus suffers, and the anticipation suffers upon its pseudo-cliffhanger of a conclusion, which left me feeling how nobody should feel at the end of a prequel: it's pretty obvious what's going to happen next, and not even outright wizarding warfare can conjure up enthusiasm for it.

Video and Audio:

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald follows a similar artistic path as its predecessor and the later Harry Potter films, submerged in gloomy grays to emphasize the ominousness of the evil that's growing in the Wizarding World. Despite that, there are plenty of flashes of appealing color throughout -- at carnivals, in skin tones, within beasts by both land and sea -- and they stay appropriately saturated and alluring when surrounded by the grayscale atmosphere. Strong details emerge in both the practical photography and the digital spectrum: the texture of fabric, the coarseness of facial hair, and the aged surfaces of walls and buildings are incredibly sharp; the slithering of a snake's body, the twirling of a blood capsule mid-air, and the vigorous movement of blue fire against a dark sky remains brilliant from start to finish. The contrast levels do wondrous things with the shadows, which are inky yet don't intrude on details within, while also consistently elevating the depth of the image; there are a lot of close-ups, and they all look spectacular. I wish there was more color, but that's of course an artistic decision, and this 2.39:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer works a lot of magic with what's there.

Perhaps the most distinctive facet of The Crimes of Grindelwald can be found in the wide variety of intriguing sound effects heard throughout the action sequences, ranging from the unique bass-powered effects of Credence's destructive abilities to the movement of beasts and the swirl of wizards' fire. The Dolby Atmos 7.1 track is a beast itself: the lower-end responsiveness stays aggressive yet tight, hitting hard with firm collisions and energy blasts without letting them rumble too hard; the higher-end crispness of spell-slinging and the clanking of mechanical objects finds a comfortable place in the front end and delivers in spades; and verbal clarity has a suitable high-end crispness and midrange resonance to it, though it still struggles a bit with Eddie Redmayne's style of talking for Newt. Atmos' object-based design tackles those louder action-driven moments with plenty of breadth and nuance, as atmospheric effects smoothly pour into the back channels for an immersive high-def experience. It's probably expected for such a high-profile release, but this Blu-ray doesn't commit any audio crimes here.

Special Features:

J.K. Rowling and others sit down for a few edited-together candid talks about the Fantastic Beasts concept and creation in A World Revealed (10:15, 16x9 HD), in which Rowling specifically opens up about the challenges and complexities involved with getting a brand-new script into being. Rowling reveals her satisfaction with being able to move outside of Hogwarts -- and all over the world -- as well as how she has some carte blanche to tinker the lore to her favor and how the narrative ties to real-world prejudice (seriously, it's like hearing someone talk about the metaphors in certain Marvel comic series). Wizards on Screen, Fans in Real Life (19:22, 16x9 HD) features Ezra Miller and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter) as they sit down and watch segments of The Crimes of Grindelwald, offering what's more like a reaction video than a real commentary. They do get to see the scenes involving Dumbledore and Hogwarts, but again, they're mostly just having run and tossing out real-world observations while watching. Kids'll enjoy this.

Adults and more die-hard fans, however, will probably enjoy the Unlocking Scene Secrets (49:09, 16x9 HD) arrangement of featurettes more. This features Rowling, Yates, the actors and production crew offering interview time about specific segments and locations scattered throughout the film, accompanied by a healthy amount of behind-the-scenes footage and light amounts of sketches and pre-viz material. While fans might get a little irritated when they see scenes featuring Professor McGonagall -- her presence there is one of many plot holes they've identified -- without addressing the "problems", those issues should be alleviated by the discussion in The Return to Hogwarts of how the old props and designs were unearthed for the school's recreation. The other bits -- Newt's Menagerie; Credence, Nagini, and the Circus Arcanus, Paris and Place Cachee; The French Ministry; and Grindelwald's Escape and the Ring of Fire -- take on foreseeable, somewhat light, but generally insightful collages of old and new footage with the same kind of behind-the-scenes discussion and footage, offering a strong, detailed, enthusiastic, if incohesive cluster of featurettes separated by title cards at the beginning and end. The remaining feature, Distinctly Dumbledore (9:31, 16x9 HD), falls more in line with these as it explores Jude Law's younger iteration of the iconic character, describing how Rowling "corrected" how Yates initially viewed the casting and how they shaped the facets of his characterization: Law's tone, the clothes, and Dumbledore's thematic brushes with darker elements of magic.

There's also a series of Deleted Scenes (14:23, 16x9 HD) made available. Now, you'll see a sticker on the front of the Blu-ray that boasts the presence of an "Extended Edition" in this package, which adds some of the deleted material back into The Crimes of Grindelwald for a more expansive experience; it clocks in about 8 minutes longer than the original cut. However, that cut isn't available on the Blu-ray itself -- nor the included DVD Copy -- only via a digital download code included with the two-disc package.

Final Thoughts:

The films of the Harry Potter universe have fluctuated in quality, absolutely, but in general the positives have outweighed the negatives in all of ‘em, whether that's because of sentimentality toward the characters caught in the activities or the visual and thematic delights casting their spells in a spectacle. While I'm not a fan of the film, really, the same goes for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a disappointing yet still marginally entertaining prequel that explores new characters, a bygone era, and lots of allured-to back history in J.K Rowling's universe. Unfortunately, The Crimes of Grindelwald marks the first time where it's hard to despute that the disappointments and frustrations (greatly) outweigh its merits: it's a middle sequel that doesn't go very far in terms of plot and gets lost in the maze of its character explorations, concocting a sluggishly-paced and obligatory blockbuster that suffers from being drawn out for the sake of getting this story to stretch across (at least) a trio of films. Worth a Rental to see familiar faces, familiar places, and some impressive digital wizardry, but this franchise really does seem like the magic's disappearing quickly.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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