Fantastic Beasts is Basically a Star Wars Prequel

The following contains minor spoilers to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. 

The beginning of Crimes of Grindelwald is a microcosm of the rest of the movie. It starts off in the American equivilant of Azkaban, and you get to see a bunch of really cool stuff. You’re mind starts to compare and contrast this prison from the sparse shots of Azkaban we see in the original movies – it has that perfect prequel combination of distinct but familiar. The head of the American wizard government from the last movie tries to convince European officials to keep Grindelwald locked up rather than risk transporting him. They mention that they cut Grindelwald’s tongue out because he was beginning to affect his guards, and that’s awesome. His pained silence speaks volumes – both to how meanacing the opening makes his presence feel and to the brutality the wizard buraeucracy is willing to inflict. They, of course, are going to transport him anyway, so they have a flying horse drawn carriage, but with threstals.

Or at least, I’m pretty sure they were threstals. As they take flight everything is dark and hard to see, shoddy rapid paced editing and poor lighting makes it very difficult to make out what’s going on. An auror disaperates onto the carriage, Grindelwald procures some small vicious creature to take out his guards, and then, plot twist, grindelwald and the guard had actually swapped appearances and places – it was Grindelwald saving his servant.

The rescue sequencey is badly shot and hard to follow. The reveal is nonsensical. Why wouldn’t Grindelwald leave his disposable follower in their hands so he can do his evil plans unimpeded by a worldwide manhunt? This in itself isn’t the worst idea – by showing Grindelwald does care about the well being of his followers instead of seeing them as disposable tools, it would distinguish him from Voldemort and make him much more interesting.

Unfortunately, that idea was giving the movie way too much credit. None of the rest of Grindelwald’s behavior matches this characterization, to the point he callously murders (I think? The sequence was so bad I couldn’t tell why Grindelwald’s spell actually killed that guy) one of his own followers for literally no reason other than he’s kind of a weak dweeb.

Like the Star Wars prequels, there’s still a lot of good stuff and ideas going on here. Like George Lucas, Rowling’s primary talents are still on display in the prequels, if not as consistently. The best scenes are the ones with character’s talking about the relatively trivial things in life – love and jealousy. Rowling’s dialogue in these scenes is as good as ever. It’s so easy for writers of sci-fi and fantasy to get so trapped in their grandiose fictional worlds that they lose the humanity of their characters. When characters are arguing over stupid things or trying to console each other or trying to flirt with one another, they feel so human and awkward and vulnerable. I laughed out loud at least 2 or 3 times. I want Rowling to write a straight up romantic comedy in the Harry Potter world without any of the fantastic life or death stakes. It would be brilliant.

The problem with both the Star Wars and Harry Potter prequels is twofold: a couple of incredibly glaring bad decisions and the complexity of Hollywood’s elaborate movie making process bogging their creators down.

We know Star Wars’s handful of really bad moments. Mostly, the dialogue. But also, Jar Jar Binks. Definitely Jar Jar. Fantastic Beasts has its own Jar Jar-ish bad idea in the name of Nagini. No, you didn’t read that wrong, nor did I make a typo. Voldemort’s snake is now originally a Korean woman with a kind of magical condition that functions similarly to being an animagus but eventually turns her into a snake permanently. Like Jar-Jar, it’s racially incensitive but the real issue is it’s just a really fucking stupid idea.

Also, just throwing in an Asian woman subserviant to the white man stereotype (we, as an audience, know that she will become the servant to literal Wizard Hitler.) is a worse look in 2018 than a bad accent was in 1999. More importantly, JK Rowling has kind of gone out of her way to present herself as being very socially conscience. It’s just a thousand times worse when you draw that kind of socially conscience attention on yourself and your creations and do something like that. Nagini doesn’t have as central a role in the movie as Jar Jar did in Star Wars, nor is she actively annoying like Jar Jar was, but in the decision’s unique way, it cast a comparable shadow over a movie which would have otherwise been flawed but much more easily enjoyed.

There weren’t any other massively glaring flaws like that one, but I just did want to mention that Grindelwald was even more generic and boring in this movie as he was in the last one. Johnny Depp has his problems both professionally and privately. As a performer, his issues usually stem from being too weird and out-there. That would have been much better than what he delivered, which was just mind numbingly boring.

The other problem was the medium itself. For Lucas, his attempts to get friends such as Spielburg and De Palma to direct Phantom Menace for him just didn’t work out. He knew his weaknesses and tried to shore them up.

With Fantastic Beasts, the biggest structural issue derives from Rowling’s writing – or rather, her experience as a writer. Her experience in writing for two decades now has been writing mystery novels (Harry Potter novels are secretly mystery novels) with a wide cast of characters and complex, intricate plots. This sort of thing is great for a novel, because all those quiet, seemingly filler moments of character development for side characters and world-building is not only adding depth to the work, but setting up elements that in retrospect are clues to the reveal at the end. Fantastic Beasts 1, for its flaws, managed to tone it down and focus in on the 4 poster characters. The Grindelwald reveal was kind of obvious and dumb, but it only took a minute to get through.

There are far more characters to deal with and far more McGuffins to set up for the graind finale in Crimes of Grindelwald. This is to the movie’s great detriment. The plot has to move along at a breakneck speed, dutifully moving around dozens of characters and magical objects as possible, set up unsatisfying foreshadowing for the grand reveals, and then hurry them all off to graveyard for the grand finale. All those fun little moments of character interaction often fail to shine through because the movie is so crowded.

In short, I had low expectations for the movie and it more or less met those expectations. The special moments of Harry Potter show up in brief flashes, but the movie is enough of a mess to drown that, and the effects driven action set pieces are mediocre at best and often worse than that. The final showdown is basically a bunch of CGI fireballs thrown on the screen that could easily be generated by a film student on Adobe After Effects. If there’s not a great story going on, and the “exciting” parts are the worst parts of the movie, what exactly am I spending my 12 dollars on?

 

 

 

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