I have a pet peeve with prequels and it was only after watching “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewold” that I was able to pin down what specifically bothered me about it. So here’s a mostly spoiler-free review along with my pet peeve and why I think it signals bad writing.
I liked the first Fantastic Beasts movie quite a bit. All the main characters were well written and well acted, and the Newt-Tina-Queenie-Jacob quartet were charming enough to carry me through the hiccups caused by trying to jam their story in with the story of the Obscurus that was terrorizing New York. But the neatest thing about it was how much bigger it made the Harry Potter world. We moved to a new city in a new country on a new continent nearly a hundred years ago, and so there was a sense of discovery much like when Harry goes to Hogsmeade for the first time, or to the World Cup of Quidditch. We were getting a glimpse into a part of the world that had always existed but we were just seeing for the first time.
The second movie continues the story–of Grindewald, who showed up at the very end of the first movie after being a background character who might just have been thrown in for flavor in the rest of it. Oh yes, we also get to see what Newt’s been up to (not much) and meet a young Dumbledore, a Lestrange, a young McGonagall…and a couple other people with ties to the Harry Potter books that I won’t mention because (maybe) spoilers, even though one of them was one of the most useless characters I’ve ever seen get so much screen time in a movie.
Are you starting to see what’s bothering me here? (I mean, apart from getting maybe a first act for the story of the four main characters of the first movie, the ones I liked.) This movie, far more than the first, pushes into your face all the connections with the Harry Potter books. Remember the Lestranges, y’all? There’s even a scene with a student in which the movie takes pains to let you know his name is McClaggen. OMG! It’s Cormac McClaggen’s grandfather probably! Does he do anything in the movie? No.
A little of this is fun. I do it in side stories and prequel stories I’ve written. But when there are so many people with ties to the main work, it makes the world feel smaller. It’s ironic that WB is starting to push the “Wizarding World” brand to expand this world beyond Harry Potter with a movie that shrinks the scope of the world in this way. We go to Paris! Do we meet any French magicians of note? We do not. The French Ministry of Magic is cool as a set for the British and American wizards to run around in. Ditto Paris.
A piece of advice I got from Kij Johnson’s novel workshop was: strive to make your world feel larger. Very often I fall into the trap of writing the story about my main character(s) and a couple of their friends. But I (and hopefully you) interact with a lot more people just on a daily basis, especially in today’s world. I have interacted today with nine of my Telegram chats, some of which include multiple people. Just today!
The same advice holds when moving around in time. If you were writing a prequel to your own life, say your high school or college years (I’m aware that for many of you those are not nearly as far in the past as they are for me; just bear with me), would the characters be the same as the ones in your life now? Some would, sure: your best friends, your family. But I’m willing to bet that in general, the people you talk to on a regular basis have changed over the last five years, ten years, twenty years. The same should go for your story.
All that said, the movie was a lot of fun. We saw it in 3D with Dolby Atmos sound and it was delightfully immersive. I still like Eddie Redmayne’s performance of Newt quite a bit, and I like the Harry Potter world a lot. As I noted on Twitter, I would like to know what Grindewold’s crimes actually are, given they felt them important enough to make a title out of, and I’d like to know what he stands for other than the rather vaguely threatening “freedom” he goes on about. Plotwise the movie doesn’t give you a whole lot to hold on to; it’s a lot of assumption that you get that this guy is Bad and must be stopped, and that this other guy is Driven. If you examine it too closely, a lot of it falls apart (for two magicians, Newt and Tina have apparently been terrible at actually keeping in touch), and there are points where the editing is noticeable for its faults. But there are a lot of clever lines, and a lot of good actors doing Good Actor Things, and of course the movie is gorgeously shot and composed. There are new Fantastic Beasts and familiar favorites, there are new spells and familiar ones. If you like the Harry Potter world–sorry, the “Wizarding World”–you’ll probably enjoy this movie, pet peeve or no.