“Fan service” is a term used to describe when an installment of a beloved franchise is said to pander to its fans rather than artistically and creatively evolve said franchise. The best fan service might satisfy the most obsessive audiences but feel hollow to general moviegoers.
With “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald,” the second installment of JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” spin-off series, the author of this iconic franchise has tried so hard to pander to the massive body of wizard fanatics that she’s written an utterly lifeless tale that also throws her magical world under the bus. The movie transcends existing terminology and may be one of the first cases of what could be called “fan disservice.”
“The Crimes of Grindewald” takes place a few months after the events of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and finds its ensemble cast of heroes and villains splintered across the world. Rowling needs a way to corral all these people to one place, so she sprinkles in some uninteresting subplots and ties them together using one throughline: the location and true identity of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
You may remember Credence as the abused orphan and dangerously powerful Obscurus from the first film, who was manipulated by Grindewald to wreak havoc before dying in the climactic battle. Except for the dying part. That’s right: he survived. How, you might ask? According to the movie, none of your damn business, that’s how.
The characters tell us over and over again that Credence’s identity is very important, but “The Hangover” does a better job of laying out an interesting mystery. This movie’s multiple fake-outs and “twists” never answer the burning question “why should I care?”
Rowling is nothing if not consistent, and the subpar plot is complemented perfectly by its characters. Grindewald, one of the wizarding world’s most fearsome foes, kills babies and looks creepy to prove that he is a Very Bad Man™. Remember our first introduction to Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” where he stepped out with his snake nose and creepy tongue, flourishing and strutting with the theatricality of a demented Liberace? This franchise’s baddie is more like they took a cardboard cutout of Johnny Depp and placed it in front of the camera.
Jude Law is alright as a young Dumbledore, but his inspirational speeches don’t come close to the wizened elegance of Richard Harris or Michael Gambon. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander as meekly as ever, though he is not nearly interesting enough to anchor a five-film franchise like our favorite Boy Who Lived did so brilliantly. And this film knows it: screentime is divvied up between the many fractured story arcs, and it never makes sense that Newt goes from a guy who likes weird animals to a major player in the greatest magical conflict in history.
I’ll take a break and talk about the good for a second. As you might expect, the effects are stunning, especially involving the new creatures. There are a few “fantastic beasts” thrown into the plot willy-nilly, but at least they’re inventive. Much like the first film, the best moments are when Newt brings out the good heart in these misunderstood creatures. Also, actor Dan Fogler injects much-needed personality into this film as the simple-minded but lovable Muggle Jacob Kowalski.
(Even though the fact that Jacob’s regained his memory is another unexplained retcon and his subplot with his magical girlfriend Queenie is so downright annoying I wanted to conduct a makeshift lobotomy right in the crowded theater.)
I’m running out of energy faster than I am negative things to say, so I’ll condense them:
-Some plot devices include a brotherly feud, a love triangle, baby-swapping, and long-lost siblings. I think this movie will find syndication on the Lifetime channel.
-If there was any logic to what wizards can or can’t do, then it’s been thrown out the window here. The filmmakers were like, “how can we get this to happen? I know: random magic!”
-Every poorly-delivered line from the inconceivably moody Credence felt like he was uttering the Cruciatus Curse on my poor brain.
-The climactic scene is a political speech. I’m not kidding.
-In order to build upon the nine films before it, this features some of the most insane and next-level wizarding gadgetry yet, which is all well and good until you realize that it makes what we see decades in the future look childish. Apparently the Wizarding World has never heard of “progress.”
-There are too many characters from the Harry Potter books. That might sound strange at first, but the inclusions of Nicolas Flamel and Naginia are entirely unnecessary to the central plot, and Professor McGonagall just complicates the Harry Potter timeline. Even the most important reference to the plot — the Lestrange family — is utterly generic when compared to Helena Bonham Carter’s delightfully wicked portrayal of Bellatrix.
But most egregious is the utter lack of catharsis in “The Crimes of Grindewald.” The movie teases out the revelation of Credence’s identity at a glacial pace, only to pull the rug out from underneath us and reveal a frustrating twist. Why did we sit through all of this? A mystery for which we never could’ve deduced the answer? Multiple subplots that lead to nowhere? An ending in which nothing ends? Well, it’s simple: Rowling wants us to tune in next time.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” could’ve been very different. It could’ve been a single, charming spin-off about Newt Scamander’s fantastic beasts and, well, where he finds them. But Rowling has tried to make another massive franchise out of a much less worthy story. Five times the movies equals five times the dough. Even if it means taking the great storytelling of the original series and putting it under the Whomping Willow.
1 1/2 stars