The foundations of something good are present, but the house that lies above is a complete mess. A horde of uninteresting characters exposit their way through far too many mundane plot lines. But hey, it looks good. Wait till it hits streaming, if you must.
The first clue as to whether this film was ever going to be good lies in the title. This film has Fantastic Beasts. It also has Crimes of Grindelwald.
Neither of those things has anything to do with the other.
They also have little to do with the half dozen other plot threads that strangle any semblance of story or theme by the end of its 134-minute runtime.
For example: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) doesn’t like to take sides in a conflict; he just wants to be a zoologist. Unless it’s to help and/or impress a woman he likes. That would be Tina (Katherine Waterston), but also maybe Leta (Zoe Kravitz), who is actually engaged to his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), but Newt was in a magazine feature that incorrectly identified him as Leta’s fiancé, and now Tina is mad.
That Game of Thrones level complication is applied to almost every plot thread.
Characters whose names are instantly forgotten drop in and out constantly. When they arrive, it is usually in crushingly boring expository sequences about ancient bloodlines (that reveal how they are somehow the predecessors for better-loved characters in the original franchise), and poetry prophecies.
This culminates in the single worst scene in the entirety of the extended Harry Potter franchise, in which most of the cast stands in a horribly dull room and tell each other pieces of another character’s backstory, while that character simply stands there. That backstory involves bloodlines, prophecies, rape, inheritance, and infanticide, among others.
That scene ends when another character that you literally forget is even present in that situation just opens up a wall.
Ever looming above these characters in an inescapable truth: if this movie, like its predecessor, is viewed in the context of the larger Harry Potter franchise, than the audience just can’t give a damn about what happens.
Because most of these characters never show up again. The most interesting and important things about those that do are already covered in better, earlier movies.
What remains are dreary forgettable characters that are only made interesting in easter-egg fashion by giving them recognizable last names. Nothing they do seems to matter – and the audience knows that to be true.
But it’s not all bad. Jude Law is wonderful as young(er) Albus Dumbledore, capturing the cryptic messaging and sly twinkle that makes him enigmatic and interesting. It is infuriating that he isn’t the focus.
The world that surrounds the plot is engaging but leaves the audience begging for more, as it did in the original movies. You want to see the French ministry, to know what aesthetic they’ve dreamt up this time.
The costumery evokes a magical The Untouchables, with men and woman in trench coats and fedoras pulling out wands, preparing to breach clandestine meetings. This works, plain and simple.
But it’s not enough to save the mess that is this prequel franchise. The worldbuilding is no longer aesthetic, but structural. Narrative is forgotten in favor of endless exposition. Theme is secondary to connectivity.
Exploring the world of Harry Potter beyond its titular character is a good idea. There are infinite stories to be mined, in a world that the audience craves to know more about.
This is not the way to do it.
Beyond the Screen
Spoiler warning: if you haven’t seen Crimes of Grindelwald, then stop reading.
Let’s talk about Grindelwald’s fascism.
The motivations in Crimes of Grindelwald are extremely confusing, more often than not, except in the case of its titular character. Grindelwald believes magical people are superior to non-magical people. Because they are superior, magical folks shouldn’t have to live in secrecy. Thus, witches and wizards should use their superiority to rule over non-magical folks.
This extremely familiar narrative shorthand for identity-based oppression was used before by Rowling in the original series – Voldemort and his Death Eaters evoked Clan symbolism and white nationalist rhetoric.
But the metaphor falls apart in Crimes of Grindelwald due to a clear misunderstanding of power and the part it plays in oppression.
There are several references to wizard cops attacking Grindelwald’s rallies and killing his followers “unprovoked.” The institutions of the magical world are shown to be wholly against him. They all view him as dangerous, and the inherent danger in his message.
In a world of seaweed horses and flying brooms, the idea that Grindelwald’s movement would not be embedded within power structures is the biggest fantasy of them all.
To so clearly delineate that his movement is extreme, and most other folks understand better including the powers that be, is to confuse the message they are attempting to impart. It also reinforces the dangerous idea that movements like Grindelwald’s are from a small but violent minority who are the victims of oppression too.
If you want to tell another story about a dangerous white nationalist wizard and their oppressive-even-genocidal behaviors, that’s fine. But to do so without truly understanding the minutia of the parallel you are trying to draw is confusing at best, and irresponsible at worst.
“At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.” -Rotten Tomatoes