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Crimes of Grindelwald is More Muddled than Magical

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second film in the David Yates-directed Harry Potter spin-off franchise, is less of a film in its own right, and more of a two-hour trailer for future films. Or maybe a live reading of a Potter trivia book. Yates’ muddy direction and Rowling’s over-complicated screenplay makes The Crimes of Grindelwald an aimless, confusing viewing experience.


Unlike the Harry Potter films, which were adapted from author J.K. Rowling’s original novels by professional screenwriters, the two Fantastic Beasts films used screenplays written solely by Rowling herself. While undeniably a skilled novelist, Rowling’s screenwriting abilities are unrefined, dragging down actors in a nearly plotless sea of exposition. The Crimes of Grindelwald features at least three almost entirely unrelated story arcs, none of them with identifiable stakes or character motivations.  


At times, The Crimes of Grindelwald feels reminiscent of some of the lesser Harry Potter installments, in which filmmakers struggled to cram 800 pages worth of detail into a 2-hour film. The only problem is that there is no book here being adapted, and no justifiable reason for all these disparate plot elements to be jammed into a single film. One particularly credulity-straining scene near the climax features several characters standing in a circle, shouting lengthy expositional stories at each other for a 10-minute sequence that feels more like 20.  


The events of the film, ostensibly revolving around an attempt by wizard authorities to stop the dark wizard Grindelwald and resolve a convoluted, centuries-old magical blood feud, feel incredibly low-stakes, as the characters’ magical abilities make them seem invincible and omnipotent, removing any sense of vulnerability or fear. One wonders why characters ever feel threatened when they have previously been shown to be able to teleport away at will.


Key character moments from the previous film, 2016’s  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, are undone with a seeming carelessness that would seem to suggest a change of writers, save for the fact that Rowling had complete control over both films’ scripts. Rowling’s plot choices feel so abrupt and out of line with the previous film that one is led to suspect that she’s simply winging this franchise, making each film up as she goes along, rather than working from any larger plan.  


Jacob Kowalski, a charming non-wizard played by Dan Fogler, whose memories of the magical world were erased at the previous film’s conclusion, reappears, and the spell to erase his memories is said to have failed. Credence Barebone, a morally ambiguous character played by Ezra Miller who was seemingly killed in the last film’s final battle, reappears alive and well.  


New characters are treated with similar disregard. Claudia Kim is given nearly nothing to do as Nagini, a character who only exists to give unneeded backstory to Voldemort’s pet snake from the original series. The character also represents another awkward, misguided attempt by Rowling to reverse-engineer a more diverse cast into the Potter universe. While another Asian character in the wizarding world is a welcome prospect, that Asian character being literally dehumanized and ending up as a pet to a Nazi analog is more suspect.


The titular villain, Johnny Depp’s Gellert Grindelwald, is far from the terrifying force the film wants him to be. What was perhaps intended as silver-tongued menace instead comes off as something between drowsiness and indifference on Depp’s part. Grindelwald’s moral stance is also confusing. Grindelwald has been previously established as the wizarding world’s analog to Hitler, yet he also carries shades of the modern alt-right and is even seemingly motivated by a desire to stop the real Nazis.  


Some members of the cast fare better. Eddie Redmayne remains quirky and likable as Newt Scamander, the franchise’s lead, and Jude Law is warm and charismatic as a younger version of Professor Dumbledore, even if his character feels superfluous to the plot. Of course, Dumbledore’s status as a gay man, long established by Rowling, is made opaque and vague, and entirely glossed over, in yet another misstep for representation.


In a film as confusing as The Crimes of Grindelwald, even the film’s direction feels like a misstep. Yates pairs Rowling’s misshapen, jam-packed script with a desaturated palette and hyperactive camera movements that make for a confounding viewing experience on nearly every level. While diehard Potterheads may find some degree of satisfaction in learning all the tidbits of lore the film contains, those seeking compelling character development, exciting conflict, or even a discernable plot arc will be left disappointed.  

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Crimes of Grindelwald is More Muddled than Magical