Look, I’m about to spend a lot of time tearing The Crimes of Grindelwald to shreds. A lot. So before that happens, let me concede the following points:
- I really wasn’t sold on the idea of Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore, but he pulls off the role wonderfully, bringing an energy, wit, and charm to the part that’s completely necessary to make it work. Law is funny and engaging, and a blast to watch; he’s undeniably the best part of the film, even though he’s barely in it.
- The other part of the film I genuinely enjoyed was Newt Scamander’s magical menagerie; it bends reality in a wonderful way that taps into what magic should be, giving the movie one of its only moments of actual wonder. (Mind you, this was also already done in the first movie, so this is basically only repeating a trick that worked once. But I’m trying to find a few positive notes before the rest of this review continues.)
- There’s a brief moment where the movie gives Grindelwald a motivation that taps into something truly interesting and complex, turning him into more than a cartoonish villain and instead into a figure who could take the movie in an interesting place. It’s scrapped almost immediately, but for a moment, it’s there.
Okay. Got that? Because that’s about the last nice things I have to say about Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is a sloppy, badly constructed, poorly plotted, thrown together piece of fan-service that forgets everything that made the Harry Potter series wonderful in favor of disappearing up its own ass, delivering supposed “revelations” that lack any impact other than what you bring in with you from outside the film, hoping that the audience can do the heavy lifting for the movie. I may not have loved the original Fantastic Beasts (which, to be fair, I didn’t hate, either; I just found it entirely empty and unnecessary, and so in love with setting up later films that it forgot to be worth seeing on its own terms), but compared to Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s a masterpiece of plotting and tightness.
I don’t even know where to begin explaining the problems with this film. Do I start with the fact that it basically has no story, eschewing anything like a multi-act structure in favor of a story that basically revolves around one character saying a sentence to another one, and just finds way to stall until we get there? Because, lord, there’s no story here at all; characters simply lurch from scene to scene, often stopping for massive exposition dumps to push things along, or chasing another character who’s running away for no clear reason. If there’s a point to the film, it’s supposedly about the orphan boy from the first movie (I’ve honestly forgotten his name, and I don’t care enough to look him up) learning who his family is, and Grindelwald tossing up obstacles so that he can claim he’s leading him on a path, mainly so he can stall the kid for two hours before telling him something he could have done at the beginning of the movie. Beyond that, things happen for no reason – or for dumb reasons – giving us a muddled mess of a movie that doesn’t even make sense on its own internal logic. (There is one other plot, involving one character’s missing brother, which I can’t get into for fear of spoilers; suffice to say, it maybe shows that the movie shouldn’t do plot, because that one incident is completely bewildering and doesn’t register as anything that a human being would actually do in life. So maybe no plot is better than incredibly stupid, incomprehensible, nonsensical plot?) Why does that one character sacrifice herself for what appears to be no reason? Why is there so much child murder in this movie? When did Nifflers become capable of advanced thinking? Why would a newspaper print a mistake like the one here? Why is Grindelwald escaping from prison not a big deal (characters literally say, “well, he’s done nothing wrong”)? Who knows? Certainly no one who watched the film.
None of this is a story in anything sort of a reasonable way, but luckily, the movie matches that by not having characters develop at all, so much as they arbitrarily make decisions. One character defects to the side of evil largely because it’s time for someone to make A Shocking Decision You Never Saw Coming, but it doesn’t really make any sense for her to do that. Dan Fogler’s muggle friend appears in the film thanks to the laziest hand-waving away of his memory wipe, but then proceeds to really do nothing except wander around in the background. And our nominal hero, Newt Scamander, decides to be neutral, and then not neutral, for reasons best known to himself, changing because the movie is over and it’s time to tease the third. That’s your character arcs and development, pretty much. And given how much the original Potter series worked because of its rich characterization, how did Rowling turn her back on that in favor of convoluted mythology and high-fiving herself for her clever canon connections?
Because, trust me, the lack of story isn’t nearly as infuriating as the sheer number of times that characters appear only so that the audience can say “ooh, that’s someone I know!”, and have nothing to do with the story? That’s maybe most notable in the case of Nagini, who’s here revealed to be a young woman who will one day be stuck as a snake forever. That could be interesting, I guess, but Nagini literally gets no lines of note in the film, other than occasionally looking scared or worried. We know nothing more about her at the end of the film than we did at the beginning, and her purpose seems only to make people go “wow, that big scary snake in the books was actually a person.” I guess that matters for some reason, but it’s certainly not clear why, because you could replace Nagini with any other female character from the series and have the same effect. (That Rowling has so little interesting done with female characters here is a pretty colossal letdown on its own terms.) But that sort of thing is par for the course for Grindelwald, where a mentioned character from the first Potter book appears without explanation or purpose, Professor McGonagall is mentioned as being in the background so we can all “ooh” and “ahh” (despite the fact that her being there doesn’t actually work within the series’ timeline), and the final line of the movie rams home a “shocking” canon revelation that’s so incredibly stupid and smug that I wanted to throw something at the screen in irritation. (Seriously, even if this movie was good, that ending would be so bad as to ruin the rest of it by itself.)
And, of course, there’s Grindelwald himself. Let’s set aside the choice to cast Johnny Depp, which is pretty awful on at least two levels (as a cinephile who’s bored of Depp’s schtick and laziness, and as a human who’s pretty repulsed by his actions of late) as best as we can, and just focus on this role, which basically is “I’m a bad man.” That’s it. There’s nothing interesting about Grindelwald, no sense of why he’s dangerous, no charisma, nothing more than a heavy-handed Nazi allegory (and, oh, will I have more to say about that in a moment) and a character who is evil because we need a big, over-the-top, EEEEEEEEEEEVIL villain in our “grounded” second series. But what makes him tick? Why is he evil? Why does he fear Dumbledore (a point which literally makes no sense, given some of the film’s revelations)? WHO KNOWS? The movie has no interest in doing anything other than letting Depp wander around and be evil, and that trick got old real quick in the first series with Fiennes. But at least there, it was a bit more forgivable, given the series’ roots as a book for younger children. Here, though? It’s ridiculous, and makes that aforementioned one jab at complexity all the more frustrating and angering.
Not enough flaws for you? Should we discuss how J.K. Rowling continues to want all the credit for declaring that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers, but gleefully elides out any mentions of it from her film, when it would honestly make sense for it to be explained? It’s hard to think of a defense of this that doesn’t boil down to “I don’t want gay characters to hurt my box office,” and that’s a pretty toxic argument to make.
Or should we discuss the way the movie wants to let its villains be Nazis in all but names, but then features a recurring theme that maybe if we didn’t attack and crack down on Nazi rallies and meetings, people wouldn’t want to be Nazis? Because let me tell you, in the wake of events like Charlottesville, that message is pretty hard to take. (And lest you think I’m reaching, I’d only tell you that a legitimate moment in this movie is when one of Grindelwald’s followers attacks someone and gets killed, and then they publicly rally and remind everyone “We are not the ones hurting people,” which is a bit on the nose.)
The short version of all of this is that I hated this pathetic excuse for a movie. All of the actors do their best, and director David Yates films it fine enough, but The Crimes of Grindelwald makes no sense, has no story, gives us no characters to care about, piles on the fan-service to an obnoxious and desperate degree, revises canon in a nonsensical fashion for shock factor, and if all of that’s not enough, legitimately offended me and made me angry in the way it treats gay characters as a tease without any courage and basically takes the side of right-wing zealots in public debates. It’s a mess of a film, and one whose message is at best incoherent, but at worst, legitimately horrible and against what I truly think the views of its author are. It’s a bad film, a bad excuse for storytelling, and one that truly makes the series worse for existing.
But, hey, it’s not like Rowling could have learned the dangers of overly fan-servicey prequels that tie everything into too neat bows while not giving us interesting characters from any other movies, right? Right?