The Crimes of Grindelwald is Bursting at the Seams With Wonder and Confusion
The trouble with making a movie adaptation of a book is that, oftentimes, it’s very nearly impossible to fit the entire story in the course of the film. Little details get left out, characters don’t get as much development, and entire chunks of the story are deliberately not included to allow the film to flow much more smoothly.
The inverse can be true for making films that aren’t based on books but are set in existing literary universes. The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second of a planned Fantastic Beasts quintet (originally a trilogy), suffers from both problems, as it feels as though it were written as a book but at the same time still feels like a gap-filling preamble to a greater conflict to come.
The first film’s ending hinted towards a sequel, but felt satisfyingly like a self-contained story with a rather straightforward narrative. In The Crimes of Grindelwald, audiences are barraged with a slew of new characters, an abundance of subplots, and overwhelming worldbuilding that it barely holds together until the end.
Set some time after the events of the first film, renegade wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) predictably escapes in the opening sequence to give impetus for the rest of the story. Favorite Hufflepuff hero and magizoologist Newton Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) returns along with the rest of main characters from Fantastic Beasts: the Goldstein sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), and no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who now find themselves in London as the Ministry of Magic sets off in pursuit of the escapee wizard.
The character of Grindelwald echoes the worst of our times: He is a powerful, smooth-talking, charismatic white male who espouses a dangerously seductive ideology. Voldemort represented the same ideas of racism and bigotry, but Grindelwald is even more resonant now than the slit-nosed Slytherin ever was. J.K. Rowling retreads the same villainous tropes in these prequels in much the same way as the Star Wars universe revisits the Empire or some iteration thereof, cementing more than ever that the enemy is exclusivity and intolerance.
The character of Grindelwald echoes the worst of our times: He is a powerful, smooth-talking, charismatic white male who espouses a dangerously seductive ideology.
As comparisons are inevitable, this is where Grindelwald exhibits his genius. Whereas Voldemort made no secret of his bigotry, Grindelwald disguises it as emancipation: Freedom to be true to oneself. The freedom to love whomever one chooses.
In a world that doesn’t understand magic, Grindelwald ostensibly fights for integration and survival. In one scene, he expressly tells his followers and sympathizers that Muggles are not the enemy—Muggles are simply “other”: not useless, but they do have a different purpose. It’s seductive, but misleading and deceptive, as viewers are aware of and are reminded of how vile and murderous Gellert Grindelwald truly is. But in the same breath he warns against the very real greed and power lust of man as he spews precognitive, magical vapors from his creepy skull hookah and it actually makes sense. If it weren’t for his archetypically villainous visage and accoutrements, he would blend right into the circus of public office.
The beautiful and terrible thing about Crimes of Grindelwald is its shameless worldbuilding, which is a treat for fans of Harry Potter who long to see more of the wizarding world the way another franchise in a galaxy far, far away has built upon its universe. But it comes at a cost, and in the case of this film, it’s a sensory overload both in terms of milieu and character. Many magical effects and artifacts are taken for granted without explanation and, outside the context of a wizarding school where one expects all things to be magical, Crimes of Grindelwald seems to have superimposed the magical world over the real one—much like Diagon Alley or Platform 9 3/4—so much and so often that it can be confusing as to what Muggles see and what is hidden.
The introduction of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and her entire story arc, supposedly the primary subplot of the film, also brings in a menagerie of new characters and players in addition to the actual menagerie of fantastical beasts a series named fantastic beasts is obligated to introduce. There’s so much going on that it’s hard enough for a Potterhead to follow that the whole exercise; for the uninitiated, it all seems exclusionary.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is but a median chapter in what promises to be a magical showdown for the ages.
Make no mistake, Crimes of Grindelwald is as magical as it gets. Magic suffuses every frame of the film, especially in a 3D IMAX theater where certain scenes are designed to spill out of the letterbox format and immerse the viewer in ways both obvious and subtle. Director David Yates, who has stewarded the wizarding world films for more than a decade now since Order of the Phoenix in 2007, attempts to bring together all the subplots and characters in a cohesive manner, but it only just comes together.
The primary message of Crimes of Grindelwald, as with all things in the Potterverse, is all about family. In this chapter we become privy to the chillingly misogynistic and repugnant Lestrange family tree. We meet Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and go on the journey to find the true parentage of the only known living obscurial, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
There are revelations here that are mind-blowing to the Potterhead, among them the previously revealed retcon that Nagini was actually once a human being (Claudia Kim). When Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), previously revealed to be queer, stares into the Mirror of Erised and sees Gellert Grindelwald with whom he was, in his words, “closer than brothers,” it is both affirmation and cause for celebration.
These retcons create problems moving forward the way prequels create problems for stories that are already finished. Rather than filling in holes in the story, Crimes of Grindelwald pokes more of them and raises more questions than answers. In the film, we find that Credence and Nagini have a relationship, but we’re given absolutely no introduction nor explanation as to why or how. In contrast, the backstory is fleshed out for the love triangle between the Scamander siblings and Leta Lestrange.
The Fantastic Beasts series is commendable for putting a neurodivergent Newt Scamander at the forefront. A creature-loving oddball, high functioning autistic wizard exhibiting Asperger’s may just be the absolute best representation of the Hufflepuff house, and it’s glorious. The world needs more atypical heroes and Newt is the poster boy for nonconformity.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is but a median chapter in what promises to be a magical showdown for the ages. It’s fantastic, perhaps even more so than its predecessor, with heightened stakes and even more massive magical special effects, but it struggles to keep everything contained in its two-hour-plus runtime, in the same way Newt’s suitcase is bursting at the brim with its fantastic beasts. It’s a wonderful trip into the wizarding world, but all those who journey must be armed with enough wizarding knowledge (the previous film is all but required viewing) or risk be lost in all the wonder and confusion.