At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.
After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.
It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.
A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.
The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.
The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.
The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?
Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)
This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.
Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.
This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.
The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.
In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.
Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.
A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.
But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.
It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.
And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.