Directed By: David Yates
Release Date: November 16,2018
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Johnny Depp, Jude Law
It's been three weeks now since the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and though I saw the film opening night, I've sat down nearly each day since in an attempt to write about the big sequel only to repeatedly find that my enthusiasm just isn't there. I've had numerous conversations about the film over the weeks since, of course, but nearly all of them have centered around just how disappointing the whole thing is, which is incredibly frustrating, as I'm a huge Harry Potter fan – something I've covered in depth enough on here already – and even enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts for setting up a whole new world of possibilities despite its flaws.
Unfortunately, Grindelwald doubles down on those very flaws rather than learns from them, resulting in a mess of a film that left me utterly bored for much of its runtime and generally unenthused with where the franchise is going next, a complete 180 from how I felt walking out of its predecessor only two years ago. That's not to say there aren't a handful of high points – and I'll be getting to them eventually – but the lows are just too glaring for me to overlook this time around to the point that I have no problem saying that this sequel is easily my least favorite entry of all the Wizarding World films we've gotten over the years since we took our first steps into it on the big screen back in 2001.
Oddly enough, on paper, Grindelwald has a pretty simple premise: A year after Johnny Depp's titular Dark Wizard was captured at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts, he escapes and travels to Paris in order to woo countless new followers, chief among them being Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who survived the events of New York City and has since gone into hiding, to his cause. At the same time, a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) tasks Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with finding Credence before Grindelwald can, setting the eccentric magizoologist off on the hunt.
Where Grindelwald stumbles, however, is that it takes its premise and loads up layer after layer on top of it of narrative threads, all sorts of characters, and an abundance of twists, turns, and callbacks. I've seen the experience of watching this film described as "what people who never read the books must have felt like watching the Harry Potter movies," a pretty fitting description, as the film is so overloaded with information that all too often seems to come straight out of thin air, the audience expected to be clued into things that are rarely given actual context.
Rather than plow too deeply into it, otherwise this review would turn into a novel, I'll boil it down to a simple example. Early in the film, Newt finds himself in front of a panel at London's Ministry of Magic, asked to find Credence in exchange for the restoration of his international travel rights, which he lost following the events of the first film. When he turns the request down, a bounty hunter named Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) reveals himself to the room, mocking Newt, whose negative reaction to the man's presence suggests bad history between the two, before taking on the job Newt declined. He later crosses paths with Credence in Paris, only for it to be revealed that he's in cahoots with Grindelwald. And then, just like that, we never see him again.
Now, imagine if, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), a pretty major player in the Potter narrative, was introduced in the film only for no one to actually address the fact that he's Draco's father, with Harry Potter already aware of who he is somehow despite the audience never having seen him before, robbing everyone of clarity about his purpose and importance. Then imagine that, when he returns at the end of the film in Dumbledore's office, he leaves and that's it, with Harry never following him out to give closure to his role in the events of the film, particularly how Harry outsmarts him in order to free Dobby from his life of servitude.
The point of the comparison is this: If you're going to introduce something, whether it's a new character or even just a concept, it has to have a meaning in the story at hand and clarity given as to why it matters by the time the credits roll. Though Lucius' importance in the overarching story of Harry Potter grew in later installments, his introduction in Chamber of Secrets served the specific story of that film (and book) by having a purpose irrespective of the fact he was only on screen for several minutes. It's made clear who he is right off the bat. We see the seeds of animosity planted between him and Harry in their first meeting that sprout by the end of the film and color their dynamic going forward. We're given the pieces of the puzzle that click into place surrounding things like his connection to Dobby and the diary of Tom Riddle that underline why his presence matters.
In contrast, when Grimmson enters the film, the bitterness he and Newt have for one another is never explained. Newt can't even make eye contact with him, frustratedly asking, "Why is he here?" which is the exact same question one has when looking at Grimmson's role in the overall film. The two never share another scene together. Their history is never explained. The big reveal that he's working with Grindelwald carries no weight because we know nothing about him despite the film positing him as some sort of major player in Newt's own history. And once he disappears from the film, it's as though he was never even there; in fact, I had to actually look online to both remember his name and even discover that he's a bounty hunter.
All this is to say that Grimmson is one example of many that underline a larger problem Grindelwald has with being so focused on the bigger picture that it loses sight of the fact that it needs to still tell a solid, self-contained story all its own. The Harry Potter series was constantly working on building out its universe, laying down story threads and introducing characters and so on as it worked towards an ultimate destination, but never forgot that each individual story had to be fulfilling in its own right, each with a clear structure that feels as much like a complete adventure for Harry and his friends as they do logical next steps for his overall journey. In contrast, Grindelwald rests on the expectation that its audience will be back for the confirmed sequels, sidestepping giving out answers to questions that could've – and should've – been given here, perpetually setting things up with little payoff in the most unsatisfying way.
Even further, no matter how many new characters got thrown into the mix as Harry Potter rolled along, the focus always remained on the main trio of friends, with others – like Dumbledore – getting more attention down the line. The first Fantastic Beasts introduced Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the scene-stealing Jacob (Dan Fogler) into Newt's life, and while the film didn't do as strong a job as it could have in building true, tangible rapport between them all, the building blocks were there for the rest of the franchise to really hone in on them and make them a unit worth rooting for like Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Instead, Grindelwald brings them all back only to keep them apart for most of the runtime while simultaneously throwing a handful of new characters into the mix, like Newt's brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt's former love interest Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), and a mysterious wizard named Yusuf (William Nadylam), the end result being that rather than our core group getting more time to shine, their characters given the chance for more depth, everyone gets focus, old and new. Add in Grindelwald, Dumbledore, Credence, and even the baffling inclusion of Nagini (Claudia Kim), who will one day become Voldemort's loyal snake, and you've got a film that tries to spend as much time as it can with as many characters as possible, which makes it hard to care for anybody when it constantly feels like we're quickly checking in with them rather than ever stopping to spend some quality time.
Though nearly everyone winds up in the same place by the end of the film – Grindelwald's big rally in Paris – the film jumps through hurdles to get them there, as each of the major players get a narrative thread of their own that's haphazardly stitched together in a head-spinning, monotonous revelation sequence that features not one but two monologues from separate characters that stops the film dead in its tracks right before the rally. Bombshells are dropped for characters like Leta and Credence that should feel like game=changers, but because we simply never spent enough time with either to care – Credence really just wanders through the movie like a plot device rather than a fully-formed character – they land with a dull thud instead of the intended explosion.
The scene is easily the film's lowest point, highlighting exactly everything wrong with the how the narrative has been constructed up until that point, from how thinly drawn the characters are to how needlessly convoluted the plot is in order to protect its secrets, but, mercifully, once it's out of the way, we're treated to – in my opinion – the best part of the film: The rally.
When Grindelwald was revealed to be Johnny Depp at the end of the first film, I was one of the many who groaned, worried that modern era Depp, who seems to have been lost to playing zany characters in his post-Jack Sparrow career, would end up being an outright distraction going forward. Surprisingly, Depp plays the role with surprising restraint despite his outward appearance, replete with bright hair and heterochromia, and the rally is where he really gets to shine, as we get a glimpse into how someone like Grindelwald really uses fear against people to lure them to his cause, wielding words and premonitions rather than spells to get his point across.
At one point, he shows his audience images of World War II, of a horrible future that's on the way because of what muggles are capable of, terrifying the men and women present with the sight of carnage on land and in the skies and people marched into concentration camps, culminating in the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. It's a genuinely chilling moment in the film, effectively playing on the fallout of World War I, and a moment in which Jacob, a WWI vet, breathlessly says, "Not another war" is an absolute highlight, the line delivered with genuine horror in a way that exposes just how rich these characters could be if only the film could have the plot serve them rather than the other way around.
As great as the rally sequence is, both in execution and for what it does for Grindelwald's character, it ultimately circles back to the film's big problem. Characters make choices that don't feel earned, or at the least like decisions that carry weight, whether it be in joining Grindelwald or sacrificing themselves for a greater good, the most egregious being Queenie's decision to go with the Dark Wizard, completing an outright character assassination that the film does to her character that starts with her extremely problematic decision to, essentially, drug and date rape her own husband – something she justifies as done out of love – and ends with her siding with someone who very clearly doesn't care for muggles, leaving Jacob (a muggle) behind because she loves him and believes Grindelwald can help them be together one day.
To put it bluntly, none of it makes sense, and only ends up underscoring how little the film is focused on its characters and their genuine relationships as it is whatever bigger picture it expects us to be patient for. Even Queenie's own sister, Tina, who is right there witnessing it all, never once speaks up or tries to intervene; in fact, the two never even share screentime once in the film, and if Grindelwald can't even bother to spend the effort to show us it cares about their relationship as sisters, then why should we care about investing in it?
Before this review ends up getting as convoluted and unfocused as the film itself is, let me say this: There's stuff I like, whether it be the rally sequence, Fogler's continued ability to make Jacob the most likeable character in the room, or Jude Law's few minutes of screentime as Dumbledore. Unfortunately, however, it's all part of a larger package that's just too messy too fully appreciate, saddled with the same sorts of faults that plagued the first film, like how Newt barely feels like the main character of his own franchise. The special effects work is solid, the costuming is great, and the production design is as detailed as ever, but it all feels like window dressing on a storefront that promises too much and actually delivers so little.
One of the first things I said to someone after seeing the film was that it felt like fan fiction, full of moments pandering to nostalgia, constantly asking things like "Remember Hogwarts? Remember Fawkes? Remember the Mirror of Erised? Remember Nicolas Flamel and the Sorcerer's Stone? Remember Nagini?" throughout its runtime, even going so far as to end on a cliffhanger note that feels like a complete slap in the face to both diehard fans of the canon of the books and anyone who likes their stories to end with any sort of satisfying closure. It pains me to say that considering J.K. Rowling herself wrote the film, and I have little doubt that had she written this as a book this story could've excelled, but as it stands, Grindelwald's script needed a few more passes in editing.
Surely – or at least hopefully – all the unexplained pieces of the puzzle that Grindelwald put on the table will become clear over the course of the remaining three films, retroactively making this entry flow smoother in context of the bigger picture, but that doesn't excuse its faults as a movie on its own. No matter what, a film should be able to stand on its own two legs regardless of its placement in a larger franchise, but Grindeldwald spends most of its time stumbling like an distracted drunkard, spouting nonsense and relying on the hope that its friends – in this case, the films now tasked with the unenviable job of following up on it – can help prop it up instead. It's messy, unfulfilling, and disappointing, and that's the real crime of Grindelwald.
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