Crimes of Grindelwald: more encyclopedia entry than story


When J.K. Rowling announced that she was going to write a five-movie series within the world of her popular Harry Potter series, there was certainly a mixed response, as some scoffed and others clamored to give the acclaimed author a chance.

This year sees the release of the second in Rowling’s movie franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a movie that makes no reasonable argument for its existence, nor for that of the franchise as a whole.

Crimes of Grindelwald picks up after its predecessor, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, bringing characters back to the screen without giving most of them a proper introduction, assuming viewers will know who they’re seeing and why they should care.

Newt Scamander is ostensibly the main character of the series, but his own story is as overshadowed in this second entry as the words Fantastic Beasts are within their own title onscreen. Newt is a magizoologist, studying magical creatures and getting mixed in with others’ plots.

Returning with Newt are characters from the previous film, like Jacob Kowalski, a “no-maj,” or non-magical human, who plays the role of being whisked along for the ride. Reintroduced as well are Queenie and Tina Goldstein, sisters and witches from New York who are romantically entangled with Jacob and Newt, respectively.

All of the characters are out looking for Credence Barebone, an Obscurial from the previous film, a magical being of immense power who needs to learn to control his abilities.

Pulling strings throughout is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard cradling an obsession with racial purity. Credence is supposedly the last in a long line of powerful purebloods — a bloodline with no non-magical blood mixed in — and almost everybody wants him on their side.

The central flaw of Crimes of Grindelwald is a lack of reason to care. Other than being a story related to the world of Harry Potter, this film has to justify its own existence and should be a compelling story unto itself. The flaw of Rowling’s career centers on her encyclopedic interest in expanding her world.

Rowling has written books related to Harry Potter, like Quidditch Through the Ages or the semi-source for Crimes of Grindelwald, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and many webpages full of content on her story expansion website, Pottermore. The supposition of such things existing is that information about Rowling’s wizarding world is interesting unto itself, that no narrative is needed in order to make details be enticing.

Take, for example, the opening scene of Crimes of Grindelwald. What should be a thrilling sequence — on a dark and stormy night, an evil wizard takes control of a flying carriage, with the authorities on brooms in pursuit — falls flat. After all, the evil wizard is Grindelwald, a super-powered wizard who duels Dumbledore in 1945. But the only way to know this is from information divulged in the seventh Harry Potter book; the movie adaptation didn’t establish Grindelwald’s background at all. The first Fantastic Beasts mostly just alludes to his evil, rather than establishing his place within the Harry Potter universe.

One sub-headline in the first movie’s opening sequence declares “DARK WIZARD STRIKES AGAIN IN EUROPE.” When Grindelwald is revealed at the end of the first movie, there is no reason to care about who he is. In Crimes of Grindelwald, the villain gains more threads of establishment, but not enough to make his presence particularly meaningful.

When the film tries to establish new characters or further develop old characters, the exposition tends to come in obtrusively, dragging the movie to a complete halt. At the same time, Crimes of Grindelwald is guilty of not providing enough information for viewers to care, yet providing too much information to the point where it feels like it’s being dumped on the audience.

Crimes of Grindelwald, as the second film in the series, could really only be described as part of a story. As the second in a series of five films, the movie does not find a need to provide a beginning or a proper ending. It is a segment, and, therefore, deeply unsatisfying. With two years between entries — if the gap between first and second Fantastic Beasts is to be a model — viewers may not reach a conclusive ending before 2024.

Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t entirely bad, but the good parts of it hint at the makings of a movie that could have been so much better. Newt is a deeply compelling character overshadowed in what should be his own movie. The stakes of Grindelwald’s involvement — the whole world, or Europe, at least, is in danger — detract from Newt’s own story, even as they feel meaningless.

Newt is left to be an observer, often just watching the larger story unfold, to the point where a cutaway shot to the main character sometimes feels jarring — he’s still here?

Eddie Redmayne, the actor behind Newt, told website Digital Spy that he believes his character is on the Asperger’s spectrum. This would seem to be confirmed through his performance; Newt has difficulty making eye contact, feels uncomfortable being hugged and acts socially awkward in a way that seems representative of being on the spectrum.

This portrayal is gentle and deep, a tonic to the grand aspirations of the surrounding story. As a character, Newt is more sympathetic than the troubled Credence, presenting more narrative value than Grindelwald does in his advocations for racial purity, full of problematic World War II allusions.

Rowling is a more than capable writer and her inventive nature has been praised for decades, but in Crimes of Grindelwald, her writing is incomplete and misguided. A movie about Grindelwald and his relationship with Albus Dumbledore would be just fine, as would one about Newt himself. But in this film and the series, Rowling mashes together two narratives that don’t belong together.

If there is a reason for them to exist together, it has not been proven in the nearly four and a half hours of film that have been put out since 2016.

The experience of watching Crimes of Grindelwald is like that of watching somebody prepare a story or set up a chessboard. The pieces are put into place, the connective tissues are built up and ideas about the forthcoming showdown of characters are established. But no game has been played yet, no story has been properly told. Crimes of Grindelwald is not void of storytelling or action, but it is severely lacking.

Going to see the film is not recommended for those who like watching complete movies.

Familiar names and creatures from the Harry Potter books and movies are not enough to sustain a story, as Crimes of Grindelwald makes clear. The potential for emotional thrill contained in visual recognition is so much less valuable than the emotional quality of a properly written story.

Sure, a young Grindelwald is played by Jamie Campbell-Bower as in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Thestrals show up, nifflers reappear and boggarts come back into the story. But these are just the connective pieces of glue that strengthen a story.

Without a foundational base of proper writing, Crimes of Grindelwald lacks exactly the magic that made each individual Harry Potter story endearing on its own.