Entropy has crept into JK Rowling’s wizarding world… but perhaps it was never meant to sustain grown-up stories.
What if Harry Potter, but too much? The answer is Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a film that exposes the limitations of JK Rowling’s wizarding world.
What was, in 1997, a fun fantasy pastiche of old-fashioned British school stories is now itself a fantastic beast — a lumbering franchise that must be fed with new films, expensive stage plays and cash-in published scripts. On his sixth directorial outing in this franchise, David Yates does his best to balance personal angst, CGI spectacle and the cosy sense of a hidden society operating under the noses of obliviated Muggles.
But he can’t camouflage that this, the second of a planned five Fantastic Beasts movies, has no real plot of its own; it’s pure connective tissue, all backstory and scene-setting. Its entropic feel comes from the impression that everything here is preordained by the future events of the Harry Potter cycle.
So much feels rehashed — the unfriendly ministries of magic that must be infiltrated with the aid of Polyjuice potion; the quirky wizard districts accessed through magical portals; even the Hogwarts Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson in which pupils practise defeating a boggart.
Rather than focusing on, you know, the crimes of Grindelwald, this film is obsessed with its characters’ family histories and romantic relationships. It’s a circular logic: the characters behave as they do because we already know they must. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, has basically produced a magical version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories: ‘How Voldemort Got His Snake’, ‘How Dumbledore Got His Phoenix’, and so on.
And the results of all this fanservice are… just so-so.
Back in 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had promised to open up a wider, more grown-up wizarding world. Because it was set in the United States in 1926, it teased historical, political and socioeconomic complexities that fell outside the scope of Harry Potter’s Bildungsroman cycle. And for the first time it included a non-magical character — genial baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) — who was charming, not obnoxious.
Mild-mannered magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) was a refreshing choice as the protagonist of this new film series. Defined by his kindness and care for fellow-creatures rather than by ‘chosen one’ pedigree or heroic ambition, Newt is a textbook Hufflepuff. He’s also a nerdy family disappointment; his glamorous older brother Theseus (the pleasingly cast Callum Turner) is a WWI hero-turned-auror who is also, awkwardly, engaged to marry Newt’s first love, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz).
And now, it turns out, Newt is the reluctant pawn of his former high-school teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who orders him to Paris for the exact reason he sent him to New York in the last film: because Newt will go unnoticed. He isn’t the protagonist of this film. Instead, everyone — including the title criminal, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) — seeks Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the troubled teen wizard whose repressed magic manifests as a destructive force called an Obscurus.
What seals the deal for Newt is that his love interest from the first film, American witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is also in Paris. So it’s off to the City of Love with his magical suitcase… and Jacob, who loves Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). From there, things get more cluttered with subplots.
For me, the film’s most resonant theme is the one it seems least interested in: Newt’s struggle within an ideologically polarised world that seeks to exploit his gentleness and compassion. Those around Newt repeatedly remind him that he must choose a side.
When Newt ultimately decides to stand with Dumbledore against Grindelwald, it’s presented as a former apathetic fence-sitter deciding to become a hero. This irritated me, because Newt’s morality springs from his refusal of heroism. It’s sad to see how a bureaucracy he dreads and despises has backed him into a corner by exploiting his loyalties.
A satisfying story-world should offer a sense of expansiveness and possibility. But there’s something grimly hollow and hermetic about the wizarding world. As Rowling heaps retcon on retcon, leaving less and less to fans’ own imaginations, the more dystopian she reveals her creation to be. At times it began to remind me of the fake town in The Truman Show (1998), which literally runs out as Truman (Jim Carrey) tests its limits.
Sure, it’s fun for kids to cast spells, encounter hidden mysteries and face demons in the name of personal growth. In children’s fiction, the adult world doesn’t need to make sense yet. But in the Fantastic Beasts films, the wizarding world is dealing with grown-up characters; and it offers them so little agency that anyone who actually wields magical powers outside stultifying institutions is a nuisance at best… and at worst, an existentially threatening supervillain.
Here, people’s destinies are circumscribed by things they did back in high school — or that their ancestors and mentors did. Their main career options seem limited to: magic bureaucrat, magic cop, magic teacher, magic domestic servant, or magic retail and hospitality worker. Imagine spending your entire life teaching at the school you once attended, and then being buried on its grounds when you die. Imagine that the only sport in the world is quidditch.
Depp — whose casting has a tang of metatextual villainy — is surprisingly restrained, playing Grindelwald as someone who mainly wants to prevent World War II. Sure, his followers might kill a few of les Non-Magiques off-camera, but he poses an attractive alternative to a bureaucracy that refuses intermarriage between magical and non-magical people, and employs wizards to hunt down their own across national borders.
Again and again, I found myself bored and annoyed with the aspects of this film I was meant to care about. I longed for Grindelwald to do some proper crimes… or at least for the Mirror of Erised to offer some more explicit Grindelwald-on-Dumbledore action.
The prospect of three more films’ worth of deterministic family history and sublimated romance is depressing indeed. But perhaps by the end, Credence will turn out to be a horcrux or something.