Fantastic Beasts is proving to be the grown-up sibling of the Harry Potter series. Both tales feature dastardly deeds done by dark wizards with similar wizard-supremacy belief structures, but where Voldemort’s evil was simplistic, Grindelwald brings the danger of a seductive and occasionally reasonable-sounding evil.
In many ways, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald feels topical. It’s easy to wonder why any sane person would back Grindelwald, who preaches a message of wizard superiority over those who lack magic, but when that message comes in an artfully spun solution to legitimate problems, it gets more complicated. It’s easy to agree that something is a problem, whether it’s overly restrictive laws against wizard/muggle interaction or gun violence. But what do you do when someone you love embraces a solution “for the greater good” that you find personally reprehensible?
At the same time, what do you do about neutrality? It’s easy to want to sit back and let things sort themselves out while you take care of your animals. There is a point, though, when lack of action is a luxury that is no longer available. Sometimes you have to pull yourself out of your suitcase.
All four main protagonists from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them return for the sequel—wizards Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, and Queenie Goldstein, and muggle Jacob Kowalski, whose good-natured sense of adventure in a strange world is just as enjoyable the second time around. We meet a number of new characters, one of whom has been the source of some controversy leading up to the release of the movie: Nagini, a woman cursed to eventually turn into a snake. In the original Harry Potter series, Nagini is Voldemort’s pet snake, who helps keep him alive during his return to power and also is one of his Horcruxes, serving as a hiding place for part of his soul. On the surface, there are some unfortunate implications in the casting of the role—while attempts have been made to diversify the wizarding world, Asian representation hasn’t been great, so many critics were concerned that it seemed one of the only named characters played by an Asian actor might fall into the subservient Asian woman trope. Having now seen the character’s treatment in the movie, however, I’m cautiously optimistic for how her arc may proceed. Without wanting to reveal any spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.
The film also brings in the younger versions of some familiar characters present in Harry Potter. The pre–Crimes of Grindelwald love affair between Dumbledore and Grindelwald provides a bit of a plot point, and Dumbledore lives up to his standard modus operandi of being mysterious about vital information. A younger Minerva McGonagall makes an appearance as well, in defiance of established supplemental canon.
Visually, the movie is a treat. In addition to a quick trip to Hogwarts, the story visits the wizarding worlds of New York, London, and Paris. Each location feels distinct while still being true to the locale and providing a bit of wizarding “weirdness.” The various fantastic beasts all seem wonderfully realistic.
However, there is a lot of story packed into just over two hours, and because of that it seems like a little bit was glossed over. For example, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them established that Obscurials, young wizards who harbor parasitic wraithlike creatures of destruction created as a result of suppressing their own powers, generally die before they reach 10 years old. But Credence Barebone, the Obscurial who appeared to (maybe) die at the end of the first movie, is—as the trailers and advance press revealed—somehow still around, and no real explanation is given in the film.
My biggest complaint is the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. First of all, there’s the issue with the domestic violence allegations against him. Secondly, he simply did a bad job in the role. When I watch an actor in a film, I should see the character. Weirdly enough, Depp was convincing as an antagonist—I just couldn’t not see Johnny Depp. Maybe they’ll discover a new spell before the next movie: Rollus recasticus.
Is the movie worth seeing? If you know what your house would be in either Hogwarts or Ilvermorny (Hufflepuff and Horned Serpent represent), chances are you’re going to see it, no matter what the reviews say. In that case, you’ll likely mostly enjoy the trip into wizarding history, though you may also quibble at the few bends of canon. If you’re Potter agnostic, maybe. If you enjoy fantasy allegories on real issues, such as how fascist and discriminatory attitudes can arise into populism, dive in.