The “Harry Potter” franchise and the Wizarding World universe has to be one of the most popular series of all time in any medium. While the adventures of the Boy Who Lived concluded with eight films years ago it didn’t take long for J.K. Rowling to spearhead a continuation of the her series exploring one of the most popular side stories from the original saga, the story of the Dark Wizard Grindelwald. That journey began in 2016 with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, based on the spinoff book by Rowling. The idea has sense expanded into a multi-film prequel story arc that continued this weekend with the second entry, “The Crimes of Grindelwald”. Despite controversy over the casting of Johnny Depp as the main villain and some believing the franchise lost its luster long ago it looks like “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is going to be yet another smash hit for the franchise, but where does it stand when compared to the previous nine films? Is it a worthy return to the Wizarding World or proof that J.K. Rowling’s popular series may finally be losing steam? Let’s take a look in my review of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”, which I will just call “The Crimes of Grindelwald” for most of this review, picks up a year after the events of “Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them”. Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), imprisoned for his crimes in the first movie, escapes and seeks to bring his followers back together to spark a war between the wizarding world and Muggles (non-magic folk) as he foresees a future where normal man’s actions lead to war. Three months after Grindelwald’s escape Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is sought out by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) who is unable to move against Grindelwald himself and wants Newt to hunt down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) who survived the previous film and appears to be a key to Grindelwald’s plans. Newt reconnects with his American friends Queenie (Alison Sudol), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Tina (Katherine Waterston) as he embarks on a journey through Paris while also reconnecting with his past love Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz). Together they all discover secrets of the past and that Grindelwald is amassing a cult of wizard followers bent on starting a war that could change the world.
First off, I will say that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is not necessarily a BAD film. It’s far from perfect, and one could argue even unnecessary, but I’ll get to that later. As far as positives go, I’ll start with the performances and work my way from there. Not all of the performances in this movie are as polished or as memorable as they were in the first “Fantastic Beasts” film but there are some highlights. Eddie Redmayne remains as charming as ever as Newt Scamander, looking more shy, damaged and unsure of himself than before after experiencing the events of the first movie and circumstances forcing him to choose sides where he doesn’t want to. I love this character and I’m glad he’s the focus of the film because he’s just so odd and quirky. He’s a delightful outcast. But he’s not the only highlight performance in this project. I absolutely LOVED Jude Law as young Dumbledore. I feel like Law captures all the right traits required of a younger version of the legendary wizard. Like his older counterpart you always believe he’s the smartest man in the room even when the odds are against him and his riddles and world play all feel very precise yet fluid just like you’d expect Dumbledore to be. I can totally see this young man growing into the elder wizard we all know from the original series and it’s clear Law had quite a bit of fun stepping into such legendary shoes.
My favorite performance however, like it or not, is from Johnny Depp. As Gellert Grindelwald Depp strikes the perfect balance between intimidation and charm. Grindelwald is a very promising antagonist for this prequel series and while this film doesn’t show us everything we need to know about him, we do see his motivations take shape and come to understand just how influential he is. Once we see where Grindelwald’s story goes in this movie he’s revealed to be an incredibly complex villain. By the end of it all I could completely understand why people found themselves following this man and there are great subtle moments that show he may not completely enjoy everything he has to do to reach his end. He’s the Wizarding World equivalent of a smooth-talking activist or politician, one of those people you feel has darker motives behind his movement but on the surface truly appears to be someone seeking peace and harmony with a willingness to make sacrifices to meet that end. While “The Crimes of Grindelwald” doesn’t fully cash in on its title it DOES manage to successfully develop what promises to be a worthy equal to Voldemort’s villainy and there’s even potential for Grindelwald to go down as the more cunning and charming of the two villain because we learn in this movie that his power doesn’t come from fear. Rather it comes from his charm and his ability to make sense of the chaos. I really like this villain and I can’t wait to see how he evolves over the next few movies.
Getting away from the acting for a bit though the visual effects in this movie are excellent as always. The creature designs (because yes we do get even MORE fantastic beasts in this “Fantastic Beasts” movie) are incredibly creative and fun even if sometimes it feels like you’ve dropped off the Wizarding map and landed in “Star Wars” for a minute. Anyways, like I said the visuals are stunning as most Wizarding World films are and with that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” does succeed in capturing the long-lasting charm of the universe in which it is set. Like past films this new entry immerses you in the world of wizards and magic while also managing to remain grounded by its association with the real or Muggle world as well. It’s fun to look at an even more fun to see the different elements in this universe we had yet to explore such as a circus and even other Ministries of Magic.
Some might argue that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” packs very little substance, and while I’ll get to my take on that soon enough, I can’t say there’s wasn’t at least something worth taking away from this movie. There are some relevant themes and great moments of world building in this screenplay which is par for the course with a writer like J.K. Rowling even if it’s not her best work. Issues of identity, prejudice, cult mentality and even the question of the righteousness of preemptive action are all tackled in subtle ways throughout the movie without it ever feeling too contrived or pretentious. In terms of world-building there are some fun nods to the original series including a small exploration of the origin of Voldemort’s snake Nagini and an appearance by Nicolas Flamel, a character mentioned in the first “Harry Potter” book and movie whose work is essential to that project’s plot. These little tidbits were revealed through trailers but it’s still fun to actually see them incorporated into the story on the big screen. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” may be far from a perfect film and is certainly far from the best Wizarding World movie but it does at least add to the overarching story in some way while also connecting to the legacy of the original movies and books without any of the throwbacks or social commentary feeling forced or unnecessary.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Unfortunately, as I said, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” DOES leave quite a bit to be desired in the end. Just to build off some of the comments made earlier, overall this film does have issues with tone and substance while side and secondary characters do not live up to their previous portrayals. While the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law and Johnny Depp are great other returning actors like Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol are just not as charming as they were before. Don’t get me wrong I still love these characters and I don’t believe their faults are on the shoulders of the actors specifically, but much of their charm is recycled from the first movie with none of them really developed very much farther as characters in this film. They all take a back seat to bigger names. The same can be said for Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone who feels like a shoehorned in character, you know one of those characters killed off in the previous film but for the sake of the franchise the writer had to come up with some convoluted reason why they’re still around. Zoë Kravitz does alright as Leta Lestrange but despite being given one of the better character arcs I couldn’t help but feel she was rather hollow. I mean these aren’t the worst performances in the world and as I said several performances are GREAT, but while a lot of it has to do with the writing this is by far some of the blandest acting we’ve seen in one of these Wizarding World movies to date.
Going back to the story as I said some people have argued that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” lack substance and they would be correct to an extent. This movie is clearly a bridge film. It’s a project built to expand on the first movie but to offer no solid conclusion while building up to future events. Now one might say “well that was how every ‘Harry Potter’ movie worked” but the difference here is this FEELS like a bridge film. The story is clearly stretched out from a much simpler idea with forced character arcs and cliché conflicts like romantic subplots that are nothing more than attempts to try and build a story around characters without producing a fully fleshed out narrative. There’s a LOT of padding and there’s always a foreboding sense that this movie is not going to offer you the answers you want because that comes later. The answers we do get are so incredibly rushed and mishandled it makes the story feel like an unfocused mess. The cliffhanger approach worked well in the original movies because fans had the books to turn to to fill in the blanks in the meantime. Here it just feels like bait on a hook it will take us years to be able to reach. Also, because of his approach “The Crimes of Grindelwald” offers few stakes and even less true conflict instead focusing on the past and building up to the future with a simply okay finale that helps establish the true threat of its main villain. I will give it this though, for a movie purely meant to establish future films it does that VERY well planting the seeds for some intriguing conflicts still to come that, admittedly, does have me excited for future installments.
Perhaps the biggest issue I had with this movie though is that it fails to even live up to its own name. This movie is NOT about the actual crimes of Grindelwald. By the time the film starts the dark wizard is already imprisoned and infamous for is actions in the first movie and by the end of this film he hasn’t exactly one-upped himself in any way. Even when characters are killed off it’s more due to a spell testing their allegiance or one of his minions doing the job for him. When discussing this movie with my friend after the fact we both agreed this movie is not about the CRIMES of Grindelwald, it’s more about the IDEALS of Grindelwald and that’s all fine and good but it makes this a character film to set up who this villain is and who our heroes are more than the action backed magical extravaganza exploring his acts of evil that the title promises. While I understand the purpose of this approach to storytelling it all comes together to prove even more that this is, in fact, a purposeful transition movie. Some would even probably call it a big middle finger to the devoted fanbase pretty much telling us to our faces that Rowling and Warner Bros. has us by the collar and they know it so we’ll have to accept that this new movie was purely meant to build on the past and the future with little intent on being a purely entertaining project all on its own. If you have the patience to accept this then fine, I actually do, but I can’t overlook the fact that this feels more like a cash grab than a passion project at the end of the day. It’s a smaller piece to a larger experience still to come and that might, hell it WILL leave quite a few people frustrated at the end of the day.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” isn’t the best movie in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. In fact, I’d say it’s probably the worst movie in the series and an insult to Rowling’s own talent as a writer as one of her worst works. BUT…with that said the previous movies and books were all so well done and stood on their own so effectively while also being part of a larger story that there was bound to be a time where at least one of these movies wouldn’t live up to the lofty expectations. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” shows cracks in this series that seriously need to be addressed if Rowling’s vision of a five film prequel series is to be completed. It’s not the best written film and a lot of the acting is not great. Still this is not an unwatchable movie. It’s immersive and visually beautiful in its own way and the main characters, Newt, Dumbledore and Grindelwald, are very well portrayed and help this film stand taller than it deserves to. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is clearly a bridge film, and frustratingly so, but it does have its own merits that I think will keep fan of Rowling’s long-running franchise amused and enthralled at least until he next features come to pass. That perhaps is its greatest accomplishment actually, that it does get you excited for what the future holds. When it’s all said and done though I do believe “The Crimes of Grindelwald” will be nothing more than a footnote in a larger epic story that I personally can’t wait to see unfold.