"Newt, you've never met a monster you couldn't love."
In our world of modern franchises, it’s easy to take the ‘Harry Potter’ series for granted. The way the films build and populate a world with endless imagination, populate it with intimate characters and have them navigate an intricate and tightly plotted narrative so masterfully over the course of those 8 movies is nothing short of a miracle. Watching them together is like witnessing some of the best long form storytelling in modern cinema, a span of movies which are all strong on their own but form something even greater than the sum of their parts.
As dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) creates panic, violence and chaos across the world as part of his plan to raise an empire of pure blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in an effort to thwart the threat. With the wizarding world growing increasingly divided, loyalties are tested amid the danger that lies ahead.
It’s worth remembering the nuanced mastery with which the ‘Harry Potter’ series furthers the narrative, characters and tone of the franchise with each successive film, because the makers of ‘Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ have not. While the first film in this spin-off franchise had its flaws, it was laced with a charm and simplicity that allowed its emotional resonance to land with satisfying impact. The same cannot be said of this second instalment which trades simplicity for utter bewilderment as the script weaves together one load of exposition after another that comes across less like a film and more like a Wikipedia article.
That is somewhat harsh given that David Yates does bestow the film with a sense of visual flair. There are plenty of engaging set pieces in which Yates versatile camera work and the pristine cinematography of Phillipe Rousselot create an engaging visual palette. Furthermore it’s worth noting just how seamlessly the visual effects artists in the film blend the magic of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ into the pastiche of the world. Every spell and charm has a clear dexterity to it which remains consistent throughout the movie. Little additions like the impeccable sound design and lavish set/costumes never fail to make this wizarding world feel fully realised.
There is also a lot to be said about the performances as the ensemble cast fill out each one of their roles with brilliant precision, even if they ultimately end up fighting for screen time in an overcrowded landscape. Eddie Redmayne carries a compelling awkwardness as Newt that once again makes him unique among franchise protagonists but also conveys the deep seated passion for the world around him which drives most of his actions with believable conviction. There’s a disappointing shortage of Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore but his confidence and sincerity combined with Law’s unique affinity for world weariness does wonders to establish a real connection between this younger incarnation and the one we are more familiar with. Meanwhile the likes of Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, and Alison Sudol retain the best qualities from their previous outings in this franchise.
It really is a shame that such an impressive array of talent has been burdened with a script as awkwardly plotted and bloated as this. JK Rowling worked wonders in terms of framing each ‘Harry Potter’ story as a mystery, inhabited by compelling and relatable characters, for the reader to solve along the length of the book. However her script are decidedly less skilled as they meander along with no narrative thrust or central hook. Instead characters transparently intended as nothing more than set ups for more interesting arcs in future films awkwardly bump into each other to form a bare bones narrative that can carry an audience to promises of more meaningful events to come in the next instalment.
The film succumbs to the worst tropes of modern franchise filmmaking, namely that makes its own narrative entirely redundant. There’s plenty of talk over where ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is going with seemingly little regard for what it’s doing now. It genuine seems as if the entire film was purpose built to serve as a prelude to its own sequel. Scenes have no real pace or urgency to how they unfold as they attempt to drag out a narrative arc over such an overly long expanse that it becomes bloated beyond recognition. Characters are almost deliberately placed to be static so as to avoid depleting their interestingness for future films. But meanwhile the film still insists on making these characters feel involved with the plot even though they have nothing to do nor any purpose within it.
‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ also succeeds at the unique feat of being both overly complex and shockingly underwritten. The need to stave off any meaningful development in order to drag the narrative out for five films demands that themes and characters remain in their initial state for the entirety of the film. Motivations are not expanded upon, actions are left unresolved and consequences remain completely absent. If anything the film seems to bend over backwards to regress some characters to where they were during the first ‘Fantastic Beasts’ so as to allow their interaction and dynamic with the rest of the cast to play out in the same manner all over again.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is what it represents in the broader scope of ‘Harry Potter’. It was unique among franchises as a series devoted to developing and exploring its subjects with every subsequent film. When watching the series you can’t simply skip a film partly due to each single film furthering the broader narrative, but also because you would miss out on a worthwhile viewing experience. ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ breaks that cycle. A movie manufactured to elongate a franchise and nothing more, a franchise that honestly has me worried that the damage to the legacy of ‘Harry Potter’ may have only just begun.
All the qualities which made ‘Harry Potter’ as magical as it was are the very same qualities ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ could do with remembering.