Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
Who will change the future?
I shouldn’t have been so befuddled while watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the tenth film in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World series, considering that I’ve seen all eight Harry Potter movies and 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latter doing a bang-up job in setting up a post-Great Depression world of monsters and magic. Alas, at around the 45-minute mark, I found myself scratching my head, thinking, ‘what on earth is going on?’ This might have something to do with the unfocussed screenplay by Rowling (credited as the sole writer here), who tries to juggle a smorgasbord of intricate subplots, three romances, a bunch of exposition, and a slew of Potterdom references and Easter Eggs. What’s more, much of the groundwork paved out in the previous film — which ended after a city-destroying battle that saw key players killed and others jailed or separated — is immediately undone, suggesting that even Rowling herself hasn’t a clue what she’s doing, and is perhaps making things up as she goes along.
Mostly set in Paris and London, 1927, The Crimes of Grindelwald kicks off with a wand-erful prologue that combines dazzling action with high-flying terror as the titular Gellert Grindelwald (an evil wizard played by Johnny Depp) escapes from incarceration while being transferred from a New York prison to face punishment for several crimes he’d committed in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, as Depp’s wicked supremacist (whose power comes not from a wand, but his silver tongue) hides out in France, where he attempts to gather supporters and spark a movement, his ultimate goal to suppress all non-magical users (known as No-Majs). We soon learn that the maniacal Grindelwald has his sights set on Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone, who all but perished at the climax of the first film but is brought back to life via a throwaway line or two, Grindelwald certain that the broody kid holds the key to keeping his pureblood followers together.
Once word of Grindelwald’s scheme gets out, nerdy Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) — who’s stuck in London thanks to some kind of travel ban — is secretly recruited by his old Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law attempting to channel Michael Gambon) and tasked with finding Miller’s troubled Obscurial before their adversaries do, both parties convinced that Credence is someone of great importance.
On his mission, Newt is joined by his old ‘muggle mate’ Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who, although having had his memories erased, happens to remember quite a lot. Jacob, it seems, also has troubles of his own, chiefly those concerning his romance with magical ‘lady friend’ Queenie (played once again by A Fine Frenzy’s Alison Sudol), which is in direct violation of the American wizarding laws. Moreover, this relationship seems to have caused a rift between Queenie’s sister and Newt’s love-interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who, after having been reinstated as a MACUSA Auror, is responsible for enforcing said laws.
Cobbled together by filmmaker-Harry Potter veteran David Yates, who’s helmed five Potter-verse movies to date — every film since Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) — The Crimes of Grindelwald is so choked and congested that it’s likely to alienate most casual viewers/ fans, this sequel so focused on catering to the die-hards that it leaves most others in the dark — a ton of foreknowledge is required to understand vital plot points, for instance.
Contending for precious screen-time is Newt’s old schoolmate fling Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who, despite being engaged to Newt’s older brother Theseus (Callum Turner), still carries a torch for the socially awkward naturalist; Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus imprisoned by a traveling freak show then escaping, joining up with Credence before later becoming Lord Voldemort’s snake-y companion; a French-African wizard in a bowler-hat called Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) who’s taken a vow to track Credence down; an enigmatic bounty hunter named Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson); and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), the ancient codger alchemist who discovered how to make a Philosopher’s Stone. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on!
Although devoid of memorable action sequences, The Crimes of Grindelwald still manages to impress with its stunning visuals, sheer attention to detail and substantial world building. The film’s collection of monstrous beasties also remains first rate; throughout its 134-minute runtime, Hufflepuff Newt rides an enormous Kelpie (an underwater sea dragon made up of thick strands of green kelp), tames a unruly Zouwu (an jumbo-sized lion creature that’s native to China), and evades a bunch of Matagots (large, black, hairless Sphinx-looking cats), who protect the Ministry of Magic in Paris. Old favorites pop up as well, such as the thin, camouflaging Bowtruckle and the naughty duck-like Niffler; oh, we get to see some baby Nifflers, too.
A nostalgic (albeit short-lived) trip back to Hogwarts is another a highlight, with flashbacks winding the clock to Newt’s former schooling days, as are the scenes that show the early relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, Toby Regbo and Jamie Campbell Bower reprising their roles from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010). I wish we got more of this and less of cranky Credence, who spends the whole movie trying to find out who he is; and, when we do finally get an answer, it’s a bit of a shambles.
Controversial casting aside, Johnny Depp does an excellent job as the villainous quasi-Voldemort baddie Grindelwald, a character who initially took the form of Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves before revealing his true self. It kinda sucks, however, that Grindelwald’s most dastardly deed (besides allowing the murder of an infant) is his excessive monologuing. The movie doesn’t culminate in an epic, emotionally charged battle; what we get instead is an elongated scene of Depp gasbagging about how non-magic users can’t be trusted. Yawn! Eddie Redmayne is good as the nervous suitcase-clutching Newt, even though it feels like Rowling and Co. aren’t confident that the character will be able to carry the franchise alone, dumping him with a heap of superfluous secondary players — um, wasn’t this series supposed to be about a guy chasing monsters? Sadly, no one else manages to stand out bar Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes (2009), who portrays a youthful Defense Against the Dark Arts version of Albus Dumbledore, long before he becomes the headmaster of Hogwarts.
At the end of the day, The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers due to its lack of a coherent narrative, the film missing that driving force that’s able to elevate the story and propel it forward. Unlike most Wizarding World installments, Crimes doesn’t really work as a stand-alone adventure either, the film posing more questions than it ultimately answers, failing to offer any sort of satisfying resolution to its many scattered pieces. Look, as an experience or an excuse to re-visit Rowling’s fantastical world, it’s okay, but as a film, it’s a bit of a letdown. Turns out that Grindelwald’s biggest crime winds up being its lack of focus.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie