I have a question for you: did you ask for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald?
Like, this movie right here. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it yet or not. Were you clamoring for this kind of direct Harry Potter prequel?
I’m genuinely curious, because I, personally, was not. I love the original Harry Potter series as much as anybody, and I’m open to the idea of expanding the broader universe around the original story, but I want to see it happen in an organic way. Crimes of Grindlewald isn’t that movie; it’s professional fanfiction, and it fails to add to the Potterverse in any meaningful way.
Though comparisons to the Harry Potter series are inevitable, this is is not just a matter of failing to live up to the original series’ legacy; Crimes of Grindelwald fails to even meet the bar set by its predecessor. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t a great movie by any stretch, but compared to the sequel, it’s Citizen Kane.
The first film is essentially a 50-50 split between the titular fantastic beasts and a broader prequel narrative surround notorious wizarding villain Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, by way of Colin Ferrell). In all honestly, it’s a pretty fun time whenever it decides to focus on the former. The titular fantastic beasts are pretty well-designed, and the various sequences highlighting them throughout 1920s New York City are enjoyable. It’s when Fantastic Beasts shifted gears into the serious business that the film started to fall apart, and that’s what gave me pause when Crimes of Grindelwald was revealed to be so much more narrative-heavy.
And narrative-heavy it certainly is. The 50-50 split from the first film now skews closer to 90-10 in favor of Grindelwald, to the point where it’s almost bizarre that this movie even has “Fantastic Beasts” in its title at all. Apart from some obligatory scenes for the fan-favorite Bowtruckles and Nifflers, it’s all Grindelwald, all the time here. The film is worse off because of it.
What amazed me the most was just how un-fun this movie is. Crimes of Grindelwald is an exceptionally bleak film. It strips away almost all of the levity of its predecessor, and in the process, seemingly goes out of its way to tear down all of the established characters. One particular returning character progresses through such an insane arc that I still haven’t been able to fully wrap my head around it.
This complete tonal shift in this film is plainly evident in its main character, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Much like in the first film, Redmayne does an admirable job with what he’s given — the problem is that the screenplay gives him substantially less this time around. Frankly, I liked Newt in Fantastic Beasts; he was a solid protagonist, with some interesting quirks, a clear moral compass and some seemingly genuine enthusiasm for what he does. He wasn’t simply a Harry Potter stand-in — his motivations were entirely different, and though I would have preferred to leave the Grindelwald drama at the door in that movie, his involvement in the conflict at least felt true to his character.
None of this is true of Crimes of Grindelwald’s Newt. This take on the character seems to be one in which he’s been lobotomized just before the movie begins. His romance with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) was already flimsy — largely shoehorned into the first film when it didn’t necessarily need to be there — but now it seems to be his only reason for existing. Newt is completely obsessed with Tina in this film, in a way he never was to begin with, and she’s his only motivation for participating in the plot through much of the movie. It doesn’t help matters that Redmayne and Waterston still have no apparent on-screen chemistry, an equally frustrating problem in the first film.
Though like I said, Redmayne is solid here, he seems to be having less fun this time around. That feeling of enthusiasm feels largely absent, perhaps because the first film’s beast-fueled romps have been limited down to less than 20 minutes of screen time. Newt is a Harry Potter stand-in in this film, and his character is horribly mismatched for the task.
Perhaps that’s why Newt seems so incredibly unimportant in this film. Despite being the ostensible main character and enjoying the most screen time of the entire cast, half of the scenes in this movie resign him to the background. He and his beasts just don’t seem to matter; they seldom actually pushes the plot forward with their actions. The plot merely unfolds around Newt, and much like the audience, he’s just along for the narrative ride.
And let’s talk about that narrative ride, because what a ride it is. If Crimes of Grindelwald’s plot was featured in an amusement park, it would be the Euthanasia Coaster. The story swerves back and forth at every opportunity, with as many plot twists as an entire season of a daytime soap opera. It concludes with a thundering, gaseous fart of a plot twist, about as far to the opposite of a mic drop as you can conceivably imagine.
The focus here, once again, is young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), and much like the first film, everyone involved really needs to find this kid, for… reasons? Credence is trying to find his birth mother, everyone seems to believe it’s possible that he’s a long-lost child of the pure-blooded Lestrange family (Remember?? From the original series??). Crimes of Grindelwald dances around why this is important, but the characters repeatedly tell us it most certainly is.
A bizarre amount of time is spent on the Lestrange family; specifically, Newt’s childhood acquaintance Lita (Zoë Kravitz). Kravitz brings the character to life competently, but much like Redmayne, she’s held back by a painfully empty script. The Lestrange saga feels tacked on, perhaps in part due to the fact that none of the characters can adequately explain why anybody should care. Speaking of tacked on: the movie introduces Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) as yet another character searching for Credence, and for the life of me, I have no idea what he added to this movie.
Credence’s arc begins with him working for a traveling carnival act (at least, I think he’s working for them — his relation to the group is unclear), and this is when the movie introduces one of its most controversial aspects: the newly retconned, presently human Nagini (Claudia Kim). I won’t add any additional explaining to the controversy itself — for the uninformed, it’s well-summarized here and well-rationalized here — but I can say that the portrayal is notably uncomfortable, especially when you consider that this character — who is a good person in this film — will be actively murdering people as Voldemort’s slave in 70-something years.
What’s remarkable about Nagini — and thus also the blow-back Rowling has faced in relation to the character — is how unnecessary she is. She adds absolutely nothing to the film. She has no arc beyond “she’s gonna be a snake someday!” and merely trails along behind Credence the entire time. I obviously can’t speak to what might be planned for the character in the planned sequels, but it feels like quite a few headaches could have been avoided by just… not including her?
While we’re speaking of unnecessary controversy, we have to address the other elephant in the room: Johnny Depp is here, after allegations of abuse surfaced from his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Despite widespread fan outrage and tentative discomfort on the part of cast members like Miller — and even from franchise stalwart Daniel Radcliffe, who weighed in fairly strongly against Depp back in January — Rowling and director David Yates have defended Depp to a deeply embarrassing extent.
From the mouth of Yates: “…the whole principal of casting the movie was go with the best actor. Go for the most inspired, interesting, right fit for that character. And as we approached Grindelwald we thought, ‘who’s going to take this in an interesting direction?’ In this business, it’s a weird old business. You’re brilliant one week, people are saying odd things the next, you go up and down. But no one takes away your pure talent.“
I don’t need to break down just how wild that “people are saying odd things,” statement is, but even apart from the controversy, there is no way you can watch the final product of this movie and believe that Depp provided “the most inspired, interesting, right fit.” Put plainly, his turn as the titular Grindelwald is fucking boring. I have admittedly never been a big fan of Depp’s work, but this performance has to rank among his least charismatic; for as much as every character wants to tell you about Grindelwald’s dangerous charm, it’s never evident when Depp starts speaking. This franchise already boasts one of the most iconic villains in fantasy history — though you could argue that Voldemort wasn’t the most compelling in the end — creating an inevitable standard for Grindelwald to live up to. He certainly does not.
Was this Johnny Depp performance really worth all that? Personally, I wouldn’t think so.
And that, ultimately, might be The Crimes of Grindelwald in a nutshell: an unnecessary disaster that didn’t need to happen this way. I won’t say that there’s no reason for these films to exist, because there was certainly a niche they could have filled in expanding the Harry Potter universe. This movie does not accomplish that, instead suffering from a severe case of Star-Wars-Prequel-itis.
There are occasional glimpses of a good film here, but if you’re looking to scratch that magical itch, go watch the original series instead. You’ll come away a lot more satisfied.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald receives a four out of ten.
- Arguably, the best performance of the film is Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore. I was a fan of the casting decision from the get-go, and certainly was not disappointed with the result. Law just has that perfect twinkle in his eye, and makes the character feel as memorable as ever.
- In all seriousness, this movie unironically implies that Grindlewald wanted to prevent the Holocaust. Seriously.
- An example of how dumb this screenplay is: the movie hand-waves away the fact that Jacob’s memory was erased at the end of the last film. It’s a worrying sign when fan theories are both more detailed and more logical than the script itself.
- I miss Colin Farrell. Throughout this movie, I kept wondering what his take on Grindelwald might have been like. He couldn’t have been less charismatic, that’s for sure.
- All of the Potterverse films sit around two and a half hours long, but this feels like by far the most arduous movie to get through. The tone is just so dark and the plot so scattershot that it feels like it drags on forever.
- Early on, a sequence in Newt’s London home is a highlight. I expected the Kelpie to return later in the film, but unfortunately, it’s not a Chekhov’s Sea Monster.
- The effects in this movie are inconsistent. Some visuals look fantastic — huge, magical sheets covering entire buildings in Paris are an obvious stand-out — but many won’t leave you particularly impressed.
- Similar to a DC Universe film, the ending of this movie is big, loud and dumb.
- Tina remains the series’ most underwritten character. Her role in the first film was mainly just to be a connection between Newt and the Grindelwald plotline, and she offers even less this time around.
- I can’t help it: I love the Nifflers. They’re fun, they’ve been the highlights of both films. Sue me.
- I’m glad this movie didn’t CGI its actors for flashback sequences. I was expecting yet another trip into the Uncanny Valley, and was instead impressed that they found solid younger stand-ins like Joshua Shea (Newt) and Thea Lamb (Leta).
- Speaking of flashbacks: in one of my favorite little moments, Fiona Glascott has a stellar appearance as a young Minerva McGonagall. She perfectly captures the cadence and presence of the great Maggie Smith, and I’d love to see more of her.