Tuesday, April 5, 2022


The Fantastic Beasts series still can’t find a compelling identity to distract from extra-textual controversies

Posted By on April 5, 2022, 8:22 AM

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click to enlarge WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
It would be great if we didn’t have to spend so much time talking about extra-textual stuff before diving into the Fantastic Beasts movies. It would be tremendous if Mads Mikkelsen had taken over the main villain role of Gellert Grindelwald for reasons besides ex-Grindelwald Johnny Depp’s off-screen controversies. It would be swell if Ezra Miller hadn’t been issued a restraining order for craziness in Hawaii. And it would be extra-super-awesome if Wizarding World creator and Fantastic Beasts co-screenwriter J. K. Rowling hadn’t become the reason so many more people now know what “TERF” stands for.

Unfortunately, we’re living in this particular world, where all of those things are true and it becomes increasingly difficult to treat these movies just as movies, rather than as a gathering place for some particularly unpleasant human beings. And if we could just treat them as movies, it would be so much easier to be clear that it’s just not worth putting in much effort to separate the creators from the creation.

Because while this Fantastic Beasts is probably the best of the three installments thus far, it’s still not very good. This one follows up on two key revelations from 2018’s The Crimes of Grindelwald: 1) that cruel wizard-supremacist Grindelwald and our old friend Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) were once lovers, with a powerful magical spell preventing them from doing one another harm; and 2) that the mysterious, powerful wizard Credence (Miller) is himself a member of the Dumbledore family. With Grindelwald still determined to start a purifying war that would eradicate the world of non-magical humans, it’s left to Dumbledore to fight him by proxy, recruiting not just Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his human friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to the task, but several other wizards in a kind of Fellowship of the Wand.

One key plot point finds Grindelwald accessing visions of the future through the blood of a magical creature, forcing Dumbledore to craft a plan that involves layers of deception and misinformation—secrets, one might say. That’s not a bad general notion, if the mechanics of it were clearer, and the personalities of the new characters were more clearly drawn. As it stands, we end up with an episodic series of adventures, some of which are silly fun, and actually draw on what we know about our protagonists, like Newt creatively employing his magi-zoological knowledge during a rescue of his brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Others are merely loud and full of various zapping wand-lasers, which characterized a lot of director David Yates’ approach to the previous movie.

click to enlarge WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
There is, at least, the ongoing allegory about fighting fascism, with Mikkelsen presenting a chillier version of Grindelwald than Depp’s charismatic manipulator. Whether intended or not, it’s hard not to see the arc of the Grindelwald story as one drawn from American politics. In the last movie, Grindelwald attracted bigoted supporters with fiery rhetoric; in this one, he attempts to steal an election. It wouldn’t be surprising if Fantastic Beasts 4 finds Grindelwald launching a social media platform, and issuing rambling press releases making fun of “Sleepy Albus.”

The problem is that even if you’re on board with thematic material the Fantastic Beasts movies are presenting, it’s basically the same thematic material that formed the foundation for the Harry Potter series, only with a less interesting bad guy. And it’s hard to make a case for any of this series’ main characters being as easy to warm to as Harry, Hermione and Ron. When two different subplots in Secrets of Dumbledore are built around characters pining over lost loves—Jacob for the mind-reading witch Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Newt for Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, mostly absent from this installment)—it only emphasizes that we’re not nearly as invested in who these people are, and what they want apart from not letting Grindelwald win.

In theory, that investment should come from a connection to Dumbledore, and learning more about his history and relationship with Grindelwald. But while Law does a fine enough job, the basic structure of the plot has him mostly on the sidelines while everyone else does the dirty work. The pain of watching someone you care about turn into a dangerous radical, as Dumbledore does with Grindelwald, could have—and perhaps should have—played a more prominent role. At least that connection to real-world events might have drawn more attention away from … other things.

Eddie Redmayne
Jude Law
Mads Mikkelsen
Rated PG-13
Available April 15 in theaters

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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