Rarely do I find myself so conflicted over a series I have so little investment in. 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them surprised me with its effort to expand the Harry Potter universe. Never having read any of J.K. Rowling’s books, I’ve merely gone along for the theatrical ride with these features but came out very happy with the first entry in this prequel series. Now, I am supposed to be all in for whatever Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is up to, but Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an odd beast in and of itself. It’s the sort of big-budget spectacle film that puts every cent on screen with its fabulous production and costume design, along with the extensive uses of special effects, and a professional set of actors working hard to maintain the illusion of a good time. And yet, the story has so little to offer, which seems to push against the main goals of this franchise.
‘Where to Find Them’ had the good sense to put up a display of wonder. I found myself entranced by the depiction of a 1920s New York where magical beings and fantasy creatures existed. Audiences were introduced to a quirky set of leads that included Redmayne’s Newt, along with Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, and Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein. This group wound up getting involved in a plot involving the dark wizard known as Gellert Grindelwald (revealed to be Johnny Depp), but the emphasis was on this new group of characters.
Nearly all of the events of that film are entirely undone in ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald,’ and it makes me question how this series is supposed to work. While I didn’t find myself in need of four more Fantastic Beasts films after the first, I was pleased enough by that film to look forward to where things would be headed. Now that I have a better idea, I wish Rowling had the good sense to condense this story down, given how much this second entry wants to reject what previously occurred, while still moving nowhere fast regarding overall arcs.
The plot is all about moving chess pieces into strategic positions on the board. Following a prologue depicting Grindelwald’s daring escape from captivity, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) decides to enlist Newt to thwart the dark wizard’s schemes. This plan involves going to Paris and recruiting the totally not dead Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to the dark side. Newt is all about not taking sides, but he sees this opportunity as a chance to reconnect with Tina.
A memory-restored Jacob and Queenie also find themselves headed to Paris, but the film goes through drastic measures to keep many of these characters separated for most of the time. This takes away a lot of the inherent fun in favor of having ways to reveal new bits and pieces of information, with the goal of making one key discovery, before the credits roll.
There is not a lack of visual splendor to be found in The Crimes of Grindelwald, but the film does suffer from applying these amazing production values to a sprawling story that feels so disconnected from characters whom we’d like to feel for. The sense of familiarity is there, sure, but with everyone continually shuffling around and speaking in either exposition or singular phrases to either create a laugh or quickly telegraph their emotions, I missed getting to know these people.
I genuinely like Redmayne as Newt, as he’s the sort of unconventional type of character to be at the head of a film like this. And yet, the film demotes him heavily for the sake of the large ensemble around him. Sure, we need to have an understanding of the folks also making up this world, but we also lose out on the fun of him interacting with the other characters. Replacing that with a heavy focus on where Credence came from feels like the sort of choice that would be dreamed up by a fanbase more devoted to questions that aren’t as cinematically interesting (like who somebody’s birth parents are).
Again, the joy in Where to Find Them was watching a film that put a central focus on Newt’s activities, with background mythology creeping in for the sake of opening the door for more stories. Crimes of Grindelwald is a deep dive into that mythology, which also includes convoluted backstories, decoding of family trees, and multiple story threads concerning relationship drama. It forgets to have a central focus, which makes the film end up feeling like a giant placeholder, which still won’t be fully resolved for another several years.
However, the film is far from unwatchable. The house style of director David Yates means the film is always visually interesting. Perhaps not the most visually ambitious entry of this franchise, but cinematographer Philippe Rousselot occasionally delivers some arresting imagery. The continued presence of fantastic beasts is also a nice sight to behold, even if this film attempts to move things down a darker path. Yet there is still quite the light touch, which is also due, in part, to the cast.
While I missed to lengthier interactions between folks like Redmayne, Waterston, Fogler, and Sudol, the film does have a massive win for itself when it comes to Law and Depp. Law practically steals the movie with his minimal screentime, playing up the obvious subtext when it comes to his past relationship with Grindelwald. There’s a mischievousness to the powerful wizard that makes him a fun presence to watch. Meanwhile, Depp finds himself at home as this imposing figure. Regardless of opinions on the actor’s life outside of film, he’s not one to let his considerable talents go to waste, and he puts a lot of power into a third-act speech that essentially establishes Grindelwald as a more realistic Voldemort.
I wish I could have liked what The Crimes of Grindelwald had to offer more. The actual thoughts Grindelwald has concerning the status of those with and without magic is worth exploring, but this is not the film for that. Time spent on Zoe Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange seems of interest, yet it gives way to a very confusing backstory that stops the movie dead. Other aspects of certain intrigue arise, only to be blown away by the mystery of Credence’s existence, which turns out to be somewhat anti-climactic. It is all quite a shame, given the work that goes into making all this happen, and how much the film plays down its grandeur in favor of making sure audiences are prepared for the movies that will come next.
So, I am conflicted. I found The Crimes of Grindelwald to have a lot going for it regarding production value, but lacking in a cohesive and focused story. The actors all put in the work, but most of them are kept separated from each other, making it frustrating not to enjoy them more. I am not devoted to the Wizarding World but can admire the many fun easter eggs surely packed into this film. It may not have been a crime to push forward a lot of stepping stones to bridge the gap to more conclusive stories, but it did feel like a punishment to take away the wonder I saw in the start of this prequel series.