You’ve probably heard that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an incomprehensible addition to the Harry Potter / Wizarding World canon. That’s more or less accurate. It feels like a truncated adaptation of a book written by J.K. Rowling for an audience aging out of the school-days drama of the first eight movies (or seven books). Unfortunately, Rowling isn’t quite sure what to give to that audience of adults now introducing their children to the defining Western pop-culture phenomenon of the early 21st century.
Adults in complicated relationships? Wizard Hitler? Commentary on abusive relationships? Big-budget explode-y action sequences? Or do we just want rote additions to lore we’ve lived with for decades, explanations and new mysteries about characters old and new? It’s amazing how, at two hours and 15 minutes, Grindelwald is somehow overstuffed and wafer-thin, entertaining and infuriating, a movie destined to be seen as a low point in a franchise — but by no means the end.
The movie picks up some time after the first movie, with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) dicking around like the doofus he is, confined to London after his actions contributed to massive-scale destruction in New York City. He’s eventually sent to Paris on a mission by Dumbledore (Jude Law), who needs an agent of sorts to go to the City of Lights in search of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a super-powerful, abused orphan wizard from the first movie now searching for his lineage while hiding out in a traveling circus.
Along the way we hang out with a whole bevy of characters who kind of flitter in and out and all about: Jacob (Dan Fogler), Newt’s Muggle friend; Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s childhood friend and former lover, who is now engaged to Newt’s brother, Thesus; Tina (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s current love interest and American dark wizard-hunting Auror; Tina’s utterly annoying sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), whose twist in this movie makes her possibly the most interesting among the supporting cast.
Last but not least, the titular Grindelwald himself, played by Johnny Depp. Grindelwald’s kind of a lousy villain here. It’s clear that only one sequence got Depp’s full attention and, quite honestly, the script’s. Most of Gindelwald’s material here feels like an afterthought. None of it works until his final sequence, which works wonders. It’s all speculation on my part here, but it feels like this movie had so many different narrative plates spinning that it wasn’t until post-production that they realized Grindelwald needed a more active role throughout the film to create any sort of tension at all, so they tossed him in with reshoots. That’s how perfunctory his sequences feel for most of the movie.
The stakes in this film are shockingly low. The driving character, Credence, is clearly the heart of this series, which is unfortunate because Rowling has trouble writing anything interesting for him to do for the entire movie. His lineage is a boring mysery that nobody cares about, which builds up to a final twist that is clearly bullshit. Most of the running time involves the main characters chasing Credence around Paris (while he searches for his lineage, unaware of any of them) while avoiding detection and working out interpersonal relationship problems. Boring problems. Newt and Tina. Jacob and Queenie. Newt, Thesus and Leta. Nobody gives a shit about any of them or who they love because we just don’t love them.
It culminates in an anti-climax so mundane that the credits come as a shock.
Truthfully, the only interesting and unique relationship in the Grindelwald era is between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Harry Potter fans are familiar with their backstory, in which a young gay Dumbledore fell in love with the seductive, cruel Grindelwald. Dumbledore is basically the bedrock of goodness in this franchise, and thus his love for one of the world’s most evil men gives him a unique and compelling conflict. “What if ultimate good was in love with ultimate evil.” That’s drama!
“Dumbledore is Gay” is Rowling’s famous post-seventh book revelation, which at the time was a pretty cowardly way to make that reveal. Now, after ten years of progressive real-world action on LGBTQ rights and an increased presence in pop culture and media, and an entire generation of Harry Potter fans who grew up on fan fiction featuring their character engaging in all sorts of love relationships, it’s honestly shameful that she keeps hiding from it. For Rowling apologists who said maybe it wasn’t relevant to that book, well, she clearly has a blindspot. The only reference to Dumbledore’s love is replaced by a shallow plot-device MacGuffin introduced at the end of the second act that gives Dumbledore an excuse not to attack Grindelwald beyond “I can’t fight the man I love” — which would be way more meaningful. Rowling has no fucking idea what she’s doing here. At least digging into Dumbledore’s character would have made for an emotionally compelling story.
Like everything else in Grindelwald, nothing comes from a natural emotion or story logic. It’s mostly bullshit convolution on what is a very simple story sitting right out in the open waiting to be told.
“There was no heart,” my friend Patrick said when the credits rolled. He’s right. There’s no doubt that many fans will enjoy the lore aspects of Grindelwald, and some of the action sequences are pretty neat. I did not hate watching it, and I hated watching the first. But the Potter stories are really about growing up and learning lessons and characters you grow to love, and there’s none of that here. It’s all pomp, show and fleeting bits of drama that would be clearly improved with access to our character’s internal monologues. Rowling just doesn’t have the storytelling sense to write for the screen. She’s a novelist, a damn good one, and I wish she had told these stories in the medium in which she is most comfortable.
Unlike some critics I do not believe this is a mortal wound for the Harry Potter franchise as a whole. It will likely be the lowest box-office draw and garner the most criticism, but the franchise still supports a goddamn theme park: It has the leeway to right itself. Frankly, the way this movie ends sets up an interesting jumping-off point for a third film: We have a coherent group of Heroes now and, thanks to a final monologue by Grindelwald, an interesting villain. Unlike Voldemort, Grindelwald is an abusive demagogue (inspired at first by Hitler, but now, I’m sure, by more contemporary bastards). His abusive belief system means something to certain characters and enhances each member of the ensemble in how they respond to him. It’s an irony that Depp is playing him, and it’s kind of a shame they can’t bring in someone like Colin Farrell, who is actually seductive and played him in the first Fantastic Beasts film. But just because Depp is a real-life asshole doesn’t mean he lost his acting talent and to see him really let loose later might be a real treat.
The key to the franchise growing would be asking Rowling to hire a more talented screenwriter and a director who is less of a yes-man. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lifeblood are the new voices and talents from they find from the indie world, whom they give considerable lee-way to tell stories that are also producer-driven. That desperately needs to happen here. Star Wars just had its first legitimate movie(s) in decades; it would still happen here.
Much of what makes Grindelwald a plodding, incoherent mess is that it has the burden of launching the rest of its franchise: The first did little of that legwork. With that out of the way, it may well usher in an interesting set of movies using a familiar and beloved fantasy world. More likely, they’ll let Rowling keep writing bad scripts and the visionless Yates keep making visually drab, motionless movies. But a boy can dream.