On fear and fascism, political rallies, unnecessary romantic entanglements, and the sputtering power of these Fantastic Beasts
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Warner Bros.
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Zoë Kravitz, Jude Law, Alison Sudol, Kevin Guthrie, Callum Turner, Ezra Miller and Johnny Depp
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 14 minutes / 2.39:1
November 16, 2018
(out of four)
Perhaps, when considering a fantasy film, the encroaching authoritarianism should go without saying. The bad guys in those stories tend to be fascistic, that's all. But when considering a fantasy film in 2018, it can't go without saying. Not when the film's overt evocation of the rise of European fascism in the 20th Century hits uncomfortably close to home. (And abroad, for that matter.) Not when the film's charismatic, fearmongering demagogue comes across as less vile and antagonistic than our own.
David Yates' Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was going to get made regardless. No matter the political climate; no matter what happened 10 days before the release of its 2016 predecessor, the $814 million-grossing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; no matter what came of the Brexit vote a few months before that; regardless of any of the burgeoning political insurgencies making their way across the West. But the movie was made now, and released now, and so its deliberate rhetorical echoes reverberate a bit differently, and a bit louder. It's happenstance, mostly - a matter of incidental context and audience awareness more than intrinsic meaning - but then again, Yates and writer J.K. Rowling were surely more than conscious of their eponymous villain's unfortunate timeliness.
Before even the inauguration itself, there had emerged in the discourse an almost breathless anticipation of Art in the Age of Trump, which was at best a desperate silver lining and at worst an enthusiastic apologia. This was pervasive enough that even in the early months of 2017, you started seeing certain new releases get discussed as commentary on Trump's America. Donald Trump is such a caricature of a bad movie villain - and that fact is such a long-running joke at this point - that we might as well see how he measures up to the real thing. Turns out Grindelwald, the evil wizard, offers a little more nuance than the competition. I mean, at least he didn't go out of his way to publicly praise every single other evil wizard in the world.
Don't get me wrong, I don't look to Harry Potter movies for my dose of searing social commentary, nor do I expect it from them. (Although in fairness, Yates' Half-Blood Prince has some nifty subtext.) But Crimes of Grindelwald's Third Reich parallels are not just obvious, but intended to be obvious, even second-nature; countless fantasies have used the same self-evident stand-in for evil. In this case it just happens to simultaneously hint at contemporary strains of latently authoritarian rhetoric.
In terms of specifics, the film's approach is a narrow one, focusing on the kind of historical flash point at which the tectonic plates subtly shift, and sides are chosen, and nothing will ever be the same again only most people don't know it yet. The moment that history books will talk about as the moment. When the rise of the malevolent force officially turned the tide. Sure, we see Grindelwald's early escape from imprisonment, and afterward a series of backstage machinations - recruiting pitches, surveillance operations, the formation of alliances. But all of that is prelude to his carefully manufactured coming-out party, a rally in which he lays his ideological cards on the table and asks - if asks is the right word - for his audience's support. It is a manifesto carefully cloaked in reason and gentility, but in fact he is sermonizing about racial supremacy, advocating for a firm hierarchical division between wizards and the lowly No-Majes. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) warns that without his new vision for society, the No-Majes will tear the world apart. He masks his hatred by insisting he's only looking out for peace and prosperity for everyone. Call it concern-trolling on a global scale.
For some - as always - the con works. And the film, to its credit, acknowledges the secondary tragedy of watching people you love fall under the wrong spell. It acknowledges the visceral power of weaponized fear, and the intoxicating pull of being welcomed by a powerful, charismatic leader. Characters we've gotten to know get swept up by Grindelwald's ideas and join his movement, while their loved ones look on in horror, their come-to-your-senses pleas unheard or ignored.
But for all its specificity about what (and when) it's evoking, The Crimes of Grindelwald has unfortunately little else to say on the subject - little to do but draw the parallel. Rowling's world has been around for 10 movies now; by this point we understand how its rules work, what its dangers are, how good and evil operate. This movie, the second in a proposed quintet of Fantastic Beasts installments, gives us more of the same, and too much of it. There are interesting threads sprinkled throughout - the mournful backstory of Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), for one. Or the long-distance stalemate between Grindelwald and his ex-lover, Dumbledore (a perfectly cast Jude Law), who is mysteriously forbidden from personally moving against him.
But too often this sequel feels like it's spinning its wheels. And it doubles down on the weakest element of its predecessor, the "romance" between Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). In Fantastic Beasts, the subplot was shoehorned in without ever feeling necessary - or authentic, for that matter. This time around, Rowling has saddled those two with a Big Stupid Misunderstanding about Newt being engaged to Leta because of a misprint in a newspaper photo caption, and so we have to spend our time navigating and resolving this very, very stupid plot contrivance that only serves to rekindle and reinforce a relationship that didn't much matter in the first place.
With regard to Newt, the series seems to have dug itself into a bit of a hole. He is our de-facto protagonist, but after this movie that seems like more more of an arbitrary decision. He's a timid magizoologist whose primary area of interest doesn't seem to have much to do with the events that have begun to take shape. He remains our de-facto lead in Grindelwald because Dumbledore handpicks him to be so, for reasons not entirely clear. This is a movie - and, presumably, a series - about moral choice amid the gathering forces of conflict. This is the narrative choice Rowling and Yates have made. Newt's fantastic beasts are still pretty cool, but within Grindelwald's framework they don't seem all that important anymore.