It is 1927. Imprisoned wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is being transferred from New York to London to be tried for his crimes (in case you forgot Grindelwald was a criminal, see title). Known to be a silver tongue, conning others into doing his bidding Charles Manson-style, we are informed that the Magical Congress of America has removed his tongue (we learn later, inexplicably, that this is untrue). When Grindelwald is set out on flying carriage, it is revealed that he used his seductive trickery to coax a Congress employee into springing him free.
Once free, Grindelwald has two goals: kill Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and create a genocidal cult of wizard supremacists.
The Crimes of Grindelwald wants to be an event film, following in the footsteps of its lofty Harry Potter predecessors,and to some it likely is. But the urgency of its characters does not translate to its narrative. Often, the action pauses for lengthy exposition dumps—one pivotal moment requires two separate characters telling lengthy backstories, both of which are accompanied by their own flashbacks. These convoluted retellings are meant to provide reveals and feint reveals, but the clunkiness with which they are structured within the narrative siphons the energy out of the already gray proceedings.
The visual display of magical Paris is flattened by bleak color palettes. These grays match the dour mood of the film, but it makes the two-hour twenty-minute long film feel like a funeral dirge, not the compelling action odyssey that it intends to be.
As the otherwise rudimentary and linear story bounces from character to character, almost as if the script is attempting to confuse the viewer into thinking the narrative requires such a robust ensemble, it is difficult to get a handle on the actors’ performances.
Jude Law seems a great fit for young Albus Dumbledore, adding a youthful whimsy to a Michael Gambon-adjacent performance, but the three scenes of material to draw from doesn’t track for consistency. Johnny Depp sneers his way through a take on Grindelwald, a villain who is more silly looking than sinister. And the rest of the new cast members are mouth pieces for backstories that are hard to find emotionally compelling, as personality never comes through.
What all this adds up to is a film that has large stretches which dull the dazzling “Wizarding World.” When Grindelwald hits its climax, it attempts more of a show, but this flashiness is loud and bombastic in the worst possible way. Not to mention that this climax exemplifies my main concern with these latter Wizarding World films: the rules can be made up as the writer goes along. If not that, then at least the concept of magic can be used for whatever necessary purpose without any sort of explanation.
Similar screenwriting issues are faced in the central romantic conflict. The entire crux of the romance subplot hinges on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) explaining a clerical error to his one-time flame Tina (Katherine Waterson). This pivotal piece of misinformation should be explained away with a single line, upon their first meeting. Instead, it takes until the least appropriate moment late in the film for Scamander to muster the courage to speak his mind.
These screenwriting misgivings are thrown in to add tension, to create conflict where none exists. The script tosses in extraneous characters with extraneous backstories in order to populate a narrative that is otherwise entirely too simple for a film pushing two and a half hours. The story is a long, meandering process of getting all of the characters to the same central location. Once that is achieved, the climax occurs, setting us up for future sequels. The way by which these characters get to the location is largely unimportant, and, thus, the majority of the film feels unimportant.
This clunky screenwriting could be a symptom of J.K. Rowling’s desire to expand the mythology of her broad world. It is an ambitious choice to do this through a five-film series revolving around a creature-obsessed textbook writer, and one cannot fault Rowling for her detailed vision. The difference between these Beasts films and Harry Potter is that Rowling does not have the benefit of the written word. Translating a novelist’s approach to the screen is not easy, and it seems as if Rowling is writing this film as if it were meant to be read, not seen.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has more of a central plot than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in that the aforementioned linear central story does more than the first film, which does little more than introduce us to an ensemble of characters. As such, this second installment is more investing. While there is much lacking in the way of characterization and storytelling structure, the end of the film does make one feel invested in the implications for the next film. If anything, these first two Beasts films have succeeded in getting the heavy-handed exposition out of the way, leaving future films with the ability to be more lean and action-focused.
It isn’t the most intuitive way to create a franchise, but perhaps these films represent the chaff that we must sift through to get to the grain. The substance is yet to come(?)
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)