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There are many people out in the world who have consumed enough of J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World for multiple lifetimes. They’ve spent time reading and re-reading the beloved Harry Potter book series, revisiting the films, and expanding their knowledge with the ever-evolving Pottermore content that keeps building that world of wizards, muggles, and magic. In the name of full disclosure, I myself am not one of those people.
I consider myself to be a fan of the Harry Potter films, though I’ve never read the books (don’t @ me). I’ve re-watched the series a couple of times, even introducing it to my mother after she missed out on the entire theatrical run. That being said, while I enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts film, I found myself utterly baffled as to what was going on during much of the runtime of The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Grindelwald picks up around a year after the first film, with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escaping custody and going on the run. Unable (for reasons later explained) to stop Grindelwald himself, a younger Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne) to help put the brakes on a planned uprising by Gridelwald and his followers. That simple, straightforward story is then overcomplicated by interwinding subplots and characters focused on identity, love, duty, and other motivations that are honestly never made clear.
While the overall plotting may be lacking, the performances in Grindelwald are pretty solid all around, with returning performers given room to expand and grow whilst certain newcomers shine. Eddie Redmayne again plays Newt Scarmander with a bit of innocently aloof charm. I’m of the belief that his Scarmander falls somewhere on the spectrum, and he does well as a conflicted hero not wanting to take sides in a growing struggle. He’s just a guy who wants to spend his time with his beasts, even if the humans around him keep getting in the way.
Returning cast members like Dan Fogler get a chance to layer their previously established characters with new wrinkles. His ‘no-maj’ (or muggle for you purists) Jacob Kowalski is still one of the best parts of these new films, filled with wide-eyed wonder balanced with just enough confusion to get good laughs. His scenes with Alison Sudol as the vibrant Queenie Goldstein are among the best in the film, which now gives them a foreboding with the ever growing threat of Grindelwald out there.
Katherine Waterson, Ezra Miller, and Zoë Kravitz also return, and do fairly well with their sometimes underwritten or murky character motivations. Kravitz comes out the best of the three as Leta Lestrange, a torn woman from Newt’s past who serves as a larger key to the plot than is let on. Newcomers to the series such as Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, and William Nadylam are fine, but their characters are often times either thin, muddled or set up for larger things later on, reducing their impact in the immediate story.
Last but certainly not least are Johnny Depp and Jude Law as Grindelwald and the younger Albus Dumbledore, respectively. Depp is effectively creepy and charming, playing Grindelwald as some sort of 1920s pied piper. He’s a man clearly made of evil intentions but gifted with a silver tongue sharp enough to charm followers with his rhetoric. Law is absolutely perfecting casting for a young Dumbledore, and wonderfully captures the warm and love of the character while also letting his quietly scheming nature simmer under the surface. Dumbledore is always someone who knows more than he lets on, and Law balances that mischievous knowledge with a true sense of heart.
With such a strong main cast, it’s a genuine shame that the structure of the film, written by series mastermind J.K. Rowling herself, is so utterly garbled that it borders on incoherent for a good chunk of its 134 minute runtime. Scenes fail to connect to one another on a basic level, leaving you wondering how we got from point A to point Q so quickly. Grindelwald also features character reveals that apparently call into question the entirety of certain characters history from Rowling’s universe.
Without getting into spoilers, there are two particular reveals make no actual sense when accounting for timelines and other character’s ages. I’m sure that Rowling has a plan to address these in the remaining Fantastic Beasts films, but that’s leaving your audience with such massive question marks for the sake of a cliffhanger just comes off as poor long form storytelling.
Characters appear and disappear at random, often times never named or identified for the audience. There are so many British white dudes in the film that it at times was hard to distinguish between the several uptight authority figures from the Ministry of Magic. Maybe that’s on me for not keeping up with my Wizarding World history. Even then, it doesn’t explain why numerous character motivations are left shrouded in mystery until clumsily revealed in extended flashbacks during the climax. After a few late game reveals, things make a little more sense from a big picture outlook, but boy is it a chore of a journey to get there.
The last 45 minutes or so do tighten up, giving characters a sense of purpose and motivation that seemed murky earlier in the film. It’s certainly darker as well, serving as a bit of an Empire Strikes Back-esque sequel, with characters we loved from the original winding up in places of danger and dismay by the end. The bad guys are certainly getting stronger, and despite the convoluted mess of storytelling, I’m interested to see where it all goes.
Despite the mangling of plot and character motivations, Grindelwald is a gorgeous film to behold from a technical standpoint. Director David Yates, longtime helmer of these Wizarding World films since 2006’s Order of the Phoenix, is a steady and confident hand when delivering the magic and wonder of the world. Yates gets soulful performances from his cast while also bringing an energetic and oftentimes dangerous whimsy to the action of the film. Much like in Order of the Phoenix, Yates makes adult magic wielders look amazing, and the wizard-on-wizard fighting is some of the most visually arresting of the series thus far.
The titular fantastic beasts are becoming less and less central to the plot of these films, but are nonetheless charming and wondrous. A gigantic, combination of a cat and a dragon provides both fear and laughs as one of the newest creatures, and the delightful kleptomaniac Nifflers make a return in big ways. Rowling clearly intends for this series to use Newt not as the central character focusing on his creatures, but rather as an audience surrogate for the relationship between Gridelwald and Dumbledore. The beasts are really cool, but they’re secondary to this story.
The production design by Stuart Craig, costumes by Hollywood costume royalty Colleen Atwood, and set decoration by Anna Pinnock are all absolutely top notch. This is a gorgeous, rather pricey film, and it spares no expense using its visuals to build the world up around you. From magical freak shows to creepy rallies in mausoleums, the settings of the film are a wonder to behold unto themselves.
The film does occasionally look as if color is being slowly bled from the series, with cinematography Philippe Rousselot giving the film an almost sepia toned look beyond the colorful spells and magic on display. Even the previously mentioned freak show and beasts, while still plenty colorful, feel muted. Lastly, the score by James Newton Howard is pretty phenominal, carrying on themes from the first film and adding a welcome layer of gravitas to the proceedings even when things struggle to connect.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like the middle part of a larger story, simply because it is. However, unlike the continuing stories of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it not only fails to feel like its own complete story, but it’s just so hard to follow. Characters are mysteries of motivation and identity until the very end, and the cliffhangers prove to be frustratingly counter to the history that has been established before. Your storytelling doesn’t come off as strong or coherent if you have to stop the climax of the film for a flashback to establish what the hell a main character is trying to do, and then answer that flashback with another flashback as to why they’re right or wrong.
That being said, for its massive weaknesses in plotting, Grindelwald provides great performances and gorgeous imagery. The Wizarding World is still a rich, deeply layered world that is fun to revisit, and I’m sure that when this particularly series is wrapped up, we’ll have a better overall appreciation for the story being told. I just wish that I knew who everyone was or what was going on before the last 30 minutes of the film decided to tell me.
The Final Pop
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald returns us to a beautiful, lush universe with warm performances from talented actors, gorgeous sets, thrilling action, and fantastic beasts. It’s a shame that such beauty is nearly ruined by poorly structured storytelling that renders a large majority of the film disjointed and hard to follow. Potter fanatics may get more out of it than casual moviegoers. Microwave Popcorn