Rowling writes out representation in ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ focuses on sequel-baiting

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is pictured in the Harry Potter spin-off series “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

Warner Bros. via TNS

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is pictured in the Harry Potter spin-off series “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

By Victoria Pfefferle-Gillot, Staff Writer

While trailers for the “Harry Potter” spin-off series “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” looked as fantastic as its title, the substance of the story left viewers with many questions.

Director David Yates, who directed the last four “Harry Potter” movies and the first entry in the “Fantastic Beasts” series, brought an amazing array of visual spectacle to the “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” However, the storyline is burdened by an unclear plot and a sequel-teasing screenplay, written by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling herself. Even the most devout Potter fans will leave the theater scratching their heads, wondering just how this could have happened.

The new film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he is thrown in the midst of a burgeoning turmoil helmed by the titular villain Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who has escaped from prison custody in New York and returned to Europe.

Due to Newt’s escapades in the previous film, he is banned from international travel by the Ministry of Magic. However, on urges from a young Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt travels to Paris in search of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).

Barebone is the key to this story. He is pursued by Grindelwald — who believes him to be vital in his plans to conquer the world. The boy himself is in Paris searching for his birth mother to find out who he truly is.

At the start of the film, Barebone is working in a magical circus, where he meets and befriends Nagini (Claudia Kim), a Maledictus — someone plagued with a specific kind of blood curse. Over the course of her life, she will permanently become a snake. Barebone helps free her from the circus and she helps him on his quest for identity, which, unbeknownst to them, is guided by Grindelwald.

There is a good amount of content that works in “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” The production quality of the film is spectacular. The cinematography feels dynamic and fluid, with only a few odd choices of extreme close-ups here and there. The CGI looks flawless, with spells and magical creatures coming to life on the screen as they’ve always done, but with richer detail.

The beloved Niffler from the first film returns as an adorable sidekick, and a Chinese mythical beast — the Nouwu — is a new addition to Scamander’s case and an unparalleled delight. The score is both wonderful and menacing, and there are a few well-placed moments when no music plays at all.

The actors all do their best at embracing their respective roles. While Depp remains a controversial casting choice as the lead villain — due to his alleged domestic violence charges against ex-wife Amber Heard from 2016 — to his acting credit, he puts effort into portraying the character of Grindelwald. Redmayne is a major highlight of the film. Scamander’s friendly rapport with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and awkward interactions with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) bring a smile to viewers.

Jude Law steals every scene he’s in as young Albus Dumbledore. He brings a charismatic cool-teacher style that accompanies the softness and hint of somber regret seen with the older Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” series. However, despite Rowling’s public statements that Dumbledore was gay and once shared a romantic relationship with Grindelwald, such details are omitted from the film, creating another level of controversy for Rowling due to a lack of LGBTQ+ representation in her works.

The dynamic between the two is unsteady, adding to the confusion many viewers and critics have experienced with this film. The plot is unclear and the characters often feel like chess pieces being moved to serve the endgame. Having so many intertwining plot threads and new and old characters leaves little room for anyone’s arc to garner any real weight or emotion. Several new characters are introduced and have minimal development.

One such character is Nagini, who was also at the center of controversy prior to the film’s release. She is introduced as an exotic, desirable attraction to the circus, and is rescued by Barebone. Nagini serves as an emotional solace for Barebone, and supports him through his journey, but hardly speaks or acts on anything.

This position could have been served by anyone or anything, and the film makes it seem like Nagini, played by an Asian actor, is a token character of color. This comes across negatively, especially considering the predicament of the character in the later “Harry Potter” films — she’s a pet, sidekick and lifeline to the darkest wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort.

Though Grindelwald is thought to be the second-most evil wizard after Voldemort, Rowling wrote the character to be more bark than bite in this tale of his crimes. He spends his time giving monologues and diatribes — and without any real evil, it gets old.

He commits no crime besides escaping from the prison transfer, as his followers do most of his dirty work for him the rest of the film. It shows he’s certainly charismatic enough to garner support, but does not really emit the same kind of terror that Voldemort did.

Potter fans may notice one Professor Minerva McGonagall shepherding students in 1927 Hogwarts, but this is a canon-breaking detail. According to Rowling’s own strictly-structured lore — which is further explained on her website Pottermore — McGonagall was born in 1935.

In addition, there is apparating — or magical teleporting — inside of Hogwarts grounds, which is something established in both the books and the films that only the Headmaster can do. Details such as these may not ruin a movie, but they do tarnish the trust and reputability the fans have for Rowling and her creations.

Rather than try to form a strong film of its own, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” works itself into a hole attempting to construct the larger franchise.