It seems there is more magic in digital worlds than in literally fantastic ones. I watched both Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Ralph Breaks the Internet on their opening nights within a week of each other. They are both sequels to largely popular films and positioned as “family friendly.” Therefore, I am going to compare apples to oranges under the argument that they are both fruit. (Also, I’ve already spent hours discussing both movies with my friends and spouse.)
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second film in the Fantastic Beasts series, but it’s the tenth film set within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The main plot revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he scampers around Paris with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) looking for Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and also Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and possibly his mother (as a mission for Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law)) – and also maybe trying to secretly sabotage Grindelwald (Johnny Depp)? There were many plot threads involving many characters.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is the sequel to Wreck-It-Ralph. In this sequel, best friends and arcade-game citizens Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) venture to the internet in order to save Vanellope’s game; Vanellope grapples with disappointing Ralph by chasing her dream while Ralph struggles with his codependency on Vanellope.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald reminded me strongly of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (the third installment in that franchise), and not because of Johnny Depp. Rather, it is due to the way both films attempt to shove in as many subplots as possible until it is difficult to even know who the main characters are, much less the point of the film besides a climactic battle.
In Pirates of the Caribbean 3, there were eight different plots following eight different characters, all with their own different motivations – which of course clashed and conflicted. It was difficult to track if you weren’t already obsessed with the movies (like I was). This led to complaints of bloat and confusion from critics and fans alike.
In The Crimes of Grindelwald, the same can be said of merely six different characters (in no order: Newt, Queenie, Dumbledore, Credence, Grindelwald, and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz)), except now there are unspoken sub-motivations for everyone’s actions as well as stated intentions. This has led to complaints of bloat and confusion from critics and fans alike.
Even putting aside other faults of the script, such as racist tropes and trivial/world-breaking canonical inconsistencies, the writing left much to be desired. This is made worse by the fact that the blame is squarely on J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series and now sole screenwriter. Rather than resolving loose threads from the first film, fans were left with even more questions. The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t feel like a complete film, but rather two hours and fourteen minutes of convoluted set-up for a payoff the audience won’t see until 2020. Or possibly even later: the Fantastic Beasts franchise is intended to be five films.
Ralph Breaks the Internet also has a lot packed into its two-hour runtime. Aside from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to YouTube, Snapchat, Fandango, and dozens of other websites, there are quests to eBay, Pinterest, Google, OhMyDisney, fictional website locations like Slaughter Race and BuzzzTube, and Ralph and Vanellope’s arcade game homes. The quick jaunts and distracting visuals (and the many brief supporting characters) certainly feel authentic to the average internet user’s experience, but that authenticity may be a detriment for the film.
On the other hand, clear goals and two fixed main characters help to anchor it. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a fully-contained story with nothing left dangling. It is important to note that eight people are credited with crafting the story, and that storytelling is a skill Pixar has honed over decades, while J.K. Rowling is relatively new to script-writing versus novel-writing.
One of my friends had never even seen the original Wreck-It Ralph before viewing its sequel, but he was only slightly thrown by the side-story. And that was only because he wasn’t perfectly clear on those character’s relationships to the protagonists. (Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) remain sadly underdeveloped despite being big players – pun intended – in the first film.) The main plot was easy to follow despite my friend’s lack of previous context.
To draw even more comparisons, The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like a DC superhero movie. Everything is serious with precious little levity, it all feels strung together by weak and confusing threads, most of the movie is overcast in a grim grey wash, and the ray of hope at the end is tenuous at best. In a word, it’s bleak.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, on the other hand, is totally Marvel: bright colors, lots of laughs, and at the center of all the action sequences is a big old beating heart bursting with friendship. Also the villain leaves something to be desired, if you could call the high octane nightmare fuel of a spontaneously-occurring Stay-Puft boss a “villain.” By which I mean the climactic battle is psychologically frightening but not cinematically scary. SEMI-SPOILER: the real villain is inside you.
It was difficult to watch Ralph Breaks the Internet from a child’s point of view. I found myself relating to various characters and situations on a decidedly adult level, and often an anxious one. The ending – wildly nontraditional by Disney standards – shocked me. It was only by experiencing this shock that I realized I was hoping a children’s movie sequel would help me solve some of my very grown up problems. (It did not.)
In The Crimes of Grindelwald, on the other hand, I constantly felt myself yearning to feel childlike wonder – because there was a dearth of it to be found, unlike in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
In conclusion, I will probably watch Ralph Breaks the Internet again once it comes out on DVD. I can’t wait to be reminded of all the zingers I’ve already forgotten, since there were just so many. As for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I’ve decided to wait until the fifth and final movie comes out before I watch any more of the series. Maybe by 2024 there will be some sort of satisfying conclusion to it all.