I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books and seen a few of the movies, mostly through the influence of multiple women throughout my life. I like the universe in general but I’ve never been super obsessed with which house I belong to or wishing I got an owl mail sending me to the American equivalent of Hogwarts. (Ilvermorny, right?)
As such, I didn’t come into the Fantastic Beasts movie franchise with too much excitement or baggage. I was interested but not enthusiastic. When I saw the first one in theaters I liked it but came out of the movie theater feeling like something was off. It bothered me because I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong or express what was bothering me about the movie. When I watched it again this weekend before seeing Crimes of Grindelwald, I still enjoyed it but also still felt the same sense of “something isn’t quite right.”
I saw Crimes of Grindelwald and actually didn’t like it. But on top of not liking it, I felt the same unexplainable nagging in the back of my head and it began to frustrate me because I wanted to be able to vocalize what was bugging me. So I thought about both movies together to try and figure out what it was – and I finally got my Eureka moment.
It was the narrative structure that was bothering me.
I’m not going to talk about canon or retcons or universe-related problems in this critique- instead I’m going to focus on the narrative and overall plotlines of both movies. There will be major spoilers of both Crimes of Grindelwald and Fantastic Beasts, so if you haven’t seen them both and want to remain unspoiled, read no further.
Our heroic motley troupe of four.
In Fantastic Beasts we’re introduced to Newt Scamander as the main character. He’s a little awkward and has some personality quirks, but it’s obvious he’s our protagonist. Over the first act of the movie, Newt runs into a Muggle and accidentally switches briefcases which leads to some of his beasts getting loose in New York. He teams up with the Muggle to save the animals before they get into trouble and shenanigans ensue. That’s the main plot through line of the movie and it works.
The main side plot of the movie involves Graves, our villain, and Credence – an orphan – who are looking for the Obscurial that’s coincidentally also been causing havoc in New York. Newt and friends only vaguely interact with this side plot themselves over the course of the movie – the beast hunting and Obscurus plots barely intersect at all over the course of the movie. And that’s where the biggest problem with the narrative of the movie lies.
You see, Newt and friends resolve the main plotline of beast hunting before the climax. The last escaped beast is safely returned to Newt’s suitcase and THEN the Obscurial reveals themselves and starts really destroying New York, prompting the final act and action sequence of the movie.
But this is unsatisfying because Newt, as our protagonist, is at best tangentially involved with the Obscurus. He captured a different Obscurus in his case pre-movie, and saw the Obscurial briefly. That’s it. He has no personal connection, no stakes, no investment in this final conflict. And yet he’s still there because he’s our protagonist. What ends up happening is a very hollow climax where Newt is the “good guy” trying to save the Obscurial, while Graves shows up as the “bad guy” and they fight because the movie demands a wizard battle, and then the MACUSA show up and kill (?) the Obscurial anyway.
It makes the movie’s supposedly thrilling climax feel empty and unearned. Throughout the movie, we come to root for Newt, Jacob, Tina and Queenie, our four main heroes. But the main plot they’re all involved in – capturing the beasts – gets resolved right before the side plot suddenly peaks and becomes the climax. So we end up with a finale that Jacob and Queenie are completely absent from, and Tina plays a lesser part in it than Newt despite her having the strongest (but still tenuous) connection to the Obscurial.
An easy solution to make the climax more fulfilling would have been to just have the last escaped beast involved in the final battle. Have the Obscurus and a beast get into a fight, and now Newt and co all have motivation: save the beast while trying to also save the Obscurial. It allows for the main and side plots to converge in a much more satisfying way for the characters.
I finally pieced together this as the reason why something bugged me about Fantastic Beasts. I was unsatisfied with the main plot arc’s resolution being absent from the climax due to it already being resolved. I was also unsatisfied with Crimes of Grindelwald’s main plot resolution: but for a different reason.
After the opening of Crimes of Grindelwald, we’re introduced to Newt again and he is still our protagonist. The first twenty minutes or so establish the main plot again – Newt is banned from travel by the Ministry of Magic, but Dumbledore wants him to go to Paris to rescue Credence (who is there looking to figure out who he is) and prevent Grindelwald from doing anything too evil. Newt is hesitant at first because of the travel ban, but once he discovers via Jacob and Queenie that Tina is in Paris, he’s off on another adventure as he and Jacob pretty quickly take a portkey to Paris.
It’s a good set-up for a plotline with good conflict – the Ministry of Magic doesn’t want Newt traveling out of the country, and Newt had a part in arresting Grindelwald and has more of a connection to Credence now, so all the stakes and motivation are there. Hijinks should ensue.
But that’s not actually the main plot.
WHO AM I?!
See, despite this set-up, the main plot of the movie ends up being “Who is Credence?” It’s established early that it’s possible Credence is Leta LeStrange’s long-lost brother and the majority of the movie is dedicated to this. Tina is in Paris looking for Credence and ends up following a mysterious guy who seems to know who Credence is. Newt and Jacob come to Paris and almost immediately abandon looking for Credence in favor of looking for Tina, who then drags them into her search for Credence’s identity. Leta LeStrange has her own side-plot and flashbacks since she’s possibly Credence’s sister. And then there’s Credence himself who spends most of his limited screen time being angsty about finding out his identity.
Because we’re supposed to care about Credence’s identity. The main plot threads all revolve around the mystery of who Credence is – except Credence is barely a character. He had very few lines in the first one and has only slightly more in this one. In the first movie, we care about Newt and his beasts because he gets the lion’s share (heh heh) of screen time and as such, we’re invested in him capturing them all. In this movie, it’s harder to care about Credence’s identity because he is still treated like a side plot character-wise, but the movie wants you to believe he’s a main character because some of the other characters’ motivations revolve around him.
These aren’t the only plotlines of the movie – there is a plot involving Queenie and Jacob arguing over marriage, which leads to Queenie getting seduced by Grindelwald’s ideas. There’s a side plot of Dumbledore not being trusted by the Ministry of Magic because he won’t fight Grindelwald for an unknown reason. This goes nowhere – they put magical handcuffs on him so they can keep track of him about over halfway through the movie, only for Dumbledore to not appear again until the end of the movie where they get removed. There’s a love quadrangle between Leta, Theseus (Newt’s brother), Newt, and Tina and there’s unnecessary added conflict (Tina thinks Newt is marrying Leta so she’s upset with him for most of the movie). Also Nicolas Flamel is in there too, and Grindelwald is doing evil things.
So you have a bunch of side plots as well as a group of characters all pursuing the main plot. Unlike the first movie, nothing is resolved before the climax of this movie so what ends up happening is through different circumstances everyone ends up at the climax somehow. Credence, Jacob, the mysterious guy, Newt/Tina/Leta, and Theseus + Aurors all show up at the climax independently. The climax kicks off with an exposition dump from the mysterious dude and Leta, and confirms that the main point of the movie is “who is Credence” by the ten minutes of exposition simply confirming he is not, in fact, a LeStrange. And after that, we have all the characters in one place and they end up facing off with Grindelwald.
He looks like he could use some rum.
Now in the first movie, what bothered me with the narrative structure was that the main plotline was resolved too soon and the climax revolved around what was presented as the side plot. In Crimes of Grindelwald, what bothered me is that the main plot isn’t resolved at all through the climax – instead it resolves all the side plots in the climax and keeps the main resolution until the denouement of the film, post-climax.
Queenie goes over to Grindelwald’s side despite Jacob’s protests. Credence decides to go to Grindelwald as well because he thinks the wizard can shed light on his identity. Then Leta steps in to save Theseus and Newt with an ambiguous “I love you” before disappearing. And then Grindelwald leaves and they have to stop the giant magic dragon from destroying Paris because that’s a thing.
In the middle of this sequence, Grindelwald whispers to Credence “This has all been about you” (or something similar, I can’t remember the exact line) and it once again hammers home the point that the point of this movie was Credence. Except none of our heroes try to stop Credence from joining Grindelwald. Jacob is only dealing with Queenie, Theseus and Newt are sort of fighting Grindelwald but then also sort of trying to protect Leta. Tina doesn’t really do anything in the climax despite having connections to both Credence and Queenie (it’s her sister for goodness sake!). There are other Aurors there but they’re all red-shirts sent to die. And Nicolas Flamel is there too.
It’s another unsatisfying mess of a climax. All these different plot threads are being resolved simultaneously but individually and not satisfactorily. We’re supposed to be in shock that Queenie and Credence sided with Grindelwald, but Queenie hasn’t interacted with anybody but Jacob and Grindelwald for the majority of the movie, and none of the main characters even really interact with Credence at all, despite the supposed mission of finding and rescuing him.
Then the main plot of “Who is Credence?” is answered and completed right before the credits hit, after another expository dump. The plot resolution is presented as a “twist” for the audience instead of any satisfactory catharsis for the characters. In movies where a question of identity is the main plot throughline and the answer is provided as a twist ending, it is most effective when the catharsis is experienced by the characters and the audience at the same time. In The Usual Suspects, we find out who Keyser Soze is at the same time as the detective. In Saw, the real killer is revealed to us as the survivor figures it out.
In the movie, the only people who find out the answer to Credence’s identity are Grindelwald and Credence. And since Grindelwald already supposedly knew this, only Credence is getting the information and we have barely any connection to Credence despite the entire movie being about him and him being present in two movies. It’s another empty resolution, just in a different way from Fantastic Beasts. All the characters we cared about were given minor side plot resolutions in the climax, except even those resolutions were half-hearted and more in favor of setting up sequel storylines.
Again, a simple fix to the movie would have been to have the reveal of Credence’s lineage to happen during the climax. The entire movie is about who he is, so have Grindelwald reveal it right before the big battle. Have the main characters react to it and have it play a part in them trying to keep Credence from siding with Grindelwald. It gives the audience more reason to be invested in the climax.
So that’s what I realized bugged me about both movies: their plot resolutions were off and so the climaxes felt empty. Fantastic Beasts’ for resolving the main plot too soon, and Crimes of Grindelwald for resolving the main plot too late.
I have other issues with Crimes of Grindelwald that made me dislike it: namely it lacked fun and needed more Newt and beasts. But I hope the next movie works on its plot and narrative structure a little better. Rowling can obviously write well: most of the books were well structured and had engaging climaxes. Hopefully she gets it right next time.