The newest installment of the most famous story about witches and wizards is here. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald marks the second entry into the sans-Harry Potter franchise. Directed by David Yates (his sixth such adventure in the wizarding universe) with J.K. Rowling acting as the sole screenwriter, the film returns to a world where much has changed. Newt is on a travel ban, unable to leave the country, while Tina is investigating the location of Credence (Ezra Miller) in Paris. The two have not seen each other since New York. Meanwhile, Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) have reunited and are engaged, though under suspicious circumstances. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and is also in Paris, searching for Credence. Newt is enlisted by Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find Credence, and if needed, fight Grindelwald. Why Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard of his generation, will not do so himself is a mystery.
The film is all about choosing sides for the upcoming war, those sides can be blood lines or beliefs. Opening in 1927, Rowling’s screenplay is transfixed by blood lines and origins. Blood has always been important in her universe, especially in the non-mixing of Muggles and the Magic-born. The Crimes of Grindelwald, to these ends, is all over the place in its first half. It would like to use blood as a metaphor for race, but it feels superficial. Not because Grindelwald isn’t dangerous, but because the side that’s fighting him still hasn’t explained why he’s dangerous. That weakness extends to other wizards because apparently Grindelwald is only picking up steam in his support.
A question of origin also extends to Credence, who spends much of the film searching for his mother (obscurials ultimately become what they are because of a lack of love). The film short-changes his portion in lieu of the background love story between Newt and Tina. The ultimate weakness of The Crimes of Grindelwald, is its over-handling. Rowling is trying to get a lot finished and started, and often those threads don’t weave as smoothly as they should.
Newt’s susceptibility to monsters is also of consequence here. As is said of him, “[he] has never found a monster that he couldn’t love.” When asked what side he’ll chose Newt responds, “I don’t choose sides.” That belief is put to the test throughout the film, as each character is asked to find their allegiances. Newt, through his relationship with Tina, which consumes too much of the film, must also find it within himself to leave the past behind. Ultimately, Newt has to learn to not love a monster.
In this installment, we finally meet Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) and, later, Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner). The film is conscious of diversity, especially as one side is an assortment of races, mixing Black, White, and, with the addition of Claudia Kim, Asian, while the other is uniform in its whiteness. The film’s overall diversity also extends to the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. The Crimes of Grindelwald initially faced criticism for possibly taking away Dumbledore’s queerness, but here, their past relationship is pretty evident. Also, Jude Law is fantastic as Dumbledore. He understands the character’s calmness, empathy, and quick wit. He was the perfect choice to assume the future-Headmaster’s wand.
However, much like Fantastic Beasts, the wizarding world doesn’t feel magical anymore. What always made the Harry Potter films so entrancing was its wonder. But that wonder, once portrayed through the eyes of children, is nowhere to be found. Newt, and to a point, Jacob, are supposed to inhabit the same innocence and disbelief, but it lacks environment. During Crimes of Grindelwald, there’s almost no difference between the magical and non-magical worlds. Sure, we know we’re in the wizarding realm when we’re in the varying Ministries of Magic (from Paris, to London, to New York), but when we’re in the streets of Paris, the similarities between the two worlds make them indistinguishable. Even when the later Harry Potter films explored further than the walls of Hogwarts, when we entered a magical realm it was apparent through the production design. Here, that design is pretty much genetic, like we’re in an amusement park and not a fictional environment made into reality.
Depp is also supremely average as Grindewald. He simply mails it in. There’s no nuance to his performance, no characterization, nothing unique. He’s simply blankly delivering his lines. Considering the flack Warner Bros. and Rowling took in hiring Depp, one would think that an amazing performance would follow. Instead, their “defense” is misplaced in someone who’s cashing checks.
Crimes of Grindelwald is at its strongest in its final act, as Grindelwald gathers his followers for a cultish meeting. The act is eerie in its calmness and logic. Rowling understands how the most oppressive, racist, and fascist regimes begin so innocently. Their innocence is what makes even the smartest susceptible to their temptation, which isn’t helped in this case, by the Ministry of Magic’s methods for combating the issue. Rowling effectively blurs the line between what constitutes the monsters, the naive, the abandoned, the confident, and how even the purest of people can be evil if put under the right conditions.
However, Rowling isn’t as strong with the rest of her screenwriting. For many Potter-heads there will be swerves and twists, and I’ve tried to keep this review as spoilers free as possible. There are actually a couple of small details that may infuriate the more dogmatic observers, specifically with wands. Rowling is an amazing world builder, but often she undoes the precepts of her novelling world as a screenwriter. Much like George Lucas, she desperately needs a co-writer who can check the continuity of her mythology. The true believers will always come flocking to be cast under Rowling’s next spell. Unfortunately, much like Ron’s broken wand, the enchantment is becoming less-and-less dependable by the film.