The second installment of the Fantastic Beasts saga is a tremendous disappointment. Much of this comes down to the story, a garbled mess of ideas connected by tiny rubber bands back to the evil Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp. The cutest little beasts cannot save this ship so long as its captain, author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling, is setting her legacy ablaze.
After the Harry Potter novels and several companion pieces to further elaborate on that world, fans have a pretty good idea of her love of complicated family lines and strange coincidences. But there is a reason why book-to-movie adaptations don’t necessarily carry over every small detail. Often those “small” details in a book, subplots, or side characters can be threaded seamlessly and serve as an “A ha!” moment later. In this case, the details are in all the wrong places at the wrong times, seemingly written to just have them out in the wild, presumably for fans to obsess over deciphering.
Newt “I don’t take sides” Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still strikingly awkward around other humans. He’s under a travel ban (their words, not mine), and can no longer travel beyond the shores of England, but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) has other plans. Newt’s mission crosses paths with that of the Americans Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), who all have their own personal missions. There’s also Tina (Katherine Waterston), Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), and the return of the walking celery stick that lives in Newt’s jacket.
Then there is Credence (Ezra Miller), who is being followed by Tina because he is on the run from the events of the first film and his potential for greater destructive force. I wish this major plotline was not obscured by… everything else. This is the clearest plot line, and where all the stories converge. From here on I cannot guarantee spoiler-free reading.
The film is intent on showing exactly how evil Grindelwald really is, with significant scenes about his power as both an orator and as a wizard of almost unmatched power. He’s not afraid of killing kids (neither was Voldemort), and he’s actually a little clever with his tactics. He’ll have his goons perform a home invasion, murder, and remove the bodies in coffins so that it doesn’t look out of place in passing. Grindelwald’s crimes are numerous, but for him, it’s not enough to be a criminal. He recruits followers under the guise of saving them from a greater evil, and that only bad things will happen if the magical world doesn’t unite now. It sounds decent on paper, of course, but in person requires ethnic cleansing, ritual sacrifice, and lots of fire. By the way, Grindelwald goes almost entirely unchallenged in ideological terms. Declaring “murder is bad” should not be a challenge.
No matter how much we might try to separate the actor from the immersion of the film, my mind was repeatedly drawn back to the real-life allegations of domestic abuse made by Depp’s ex-wife. Regardless of your feelings on Depp’s real life, it is an awkward and difficult situation as a fan, and odder still when you follow the #metoo movement and know certain actors may have felt uncomfortable with that casting. It’s not that they didn’t know or care, but rather that they made the decision to move forward without considering the objection of fans. Harry Potter is a franchise that is going to be almost completely immune to the effects of bad reviews on its returns. Even if fans boycott, there still is a ton of money that will come from television networks and the theme park. Their pockets get lined anyway.
Almost as bad, if not worse, is Rowling’s inserting her response to the controversy in the film’s fiber. One major plotline: a female character enchants a man to adore her and become engaged to her. She is in an otherwise consensual relationship with him. The spell is broken; the man asks her why she did it, her blubbering explanation ends with him almost calling her crazy, and her leaving him, only to have him spend the rest of the movie trying to win her back. Literally no one asked for this to happen. This movie is supposed to be about magical creatures an evil guy who wants to kill everyone, and how that gets stopped. Why is this discursive madness even in the movie at all? But wait, there’s more.
Rowling’s attempt at relevance continues in the form of… wait for it… a freakshow! Did you want to see a set of triplet albino men who seem to be involved in the freakshow just for the color of their skin? Keep in mind, Grindelwald himself is an evil oddity who also appears to be albino. What’s up with that, JKR? Why are so many people who are “different” on such far ends of the spectrum of goodness? If they aren’t an angel, they’re either virtually nonexistent set dressing, “bad kids,” or Hitler. And if you happen to be a women, then you’re literally cursed.
Then there is the sexual violence! The love triangles! The forgettable allusions to social justice! Why? What is the ultimate goal for this movie that would require all of this, plus an entirely useless Auror plotline? There are more movies to come. Why do we need three in one?
There’s also a weird and gross bit that is essentially a PSA to prevent dry eyes. As someone with an upcoming ophthalmologist appointment, I approve of that message.
I guess my ultimate question for Rowling is this: why not just write a new book instead? When you’ve left your rapt audience confused not just about the film’s plot, but also about your politics/intent as a writer, you’ve missed the mark.