I’ll say this for J.K Rowling and her Wizarding World. The siren’s call beckons and, no matter how over this shit I may be, I answer. I was not enthusiastic about “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Maybe I’m just tired and browbeaten by this particular line of content, but I’ve had a hard time drumming up excitement for this series.
Mix that general ambivalence with some eyebrow-raising casting choices and a fair bit of controversy and I find myself viewing “Crimes of Grindelwald” simultaneously giddy with fangirl excitement and begrudgingly in attendance.
What can I say about “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald?” It is much better than “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and this gives me hope.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is the sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Both films are an expansion and exploration into the lore, history, and characters of Rowling’s beloved Wizarding World that we know and love from the Harry Potter films.
The film stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, and Dan Fogler, with a highly anticipated performance by Jude Law, as the young Albus Dumbledore, and a much less well-received inclusion of Johnny Depp as dark wizard Grindelwald.
“Crimes of Grindelwald” has gotten flack from everything to that unfortunate casting choice, to Rowling’s defensiveness of a lore that nobody but her seems to understand, and a huge PC conflict on the implications of Nagini, who we learn is actually a woman that transforms into a snake, being kept as a silent slave for the entire Harry Potter series. I’m glad to report that at least some of these controversies are given adequate explanation and justification in the film and I imagine that the comment sections of the Internet will be able to rest easy.
Where “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was a nice introduction to this new cast of characters, “Crimes of Grindelwald” is where the story really gets cooking.
At the orders of Dumbledore, Newt Scamander (Redmayne) and his friends prepare for the ultimate face-off against the OG dark lord and basically wizard Hitler, Grindelwald. Secrets are revealed and the stage is set for a battle for the soul of the Wizarding World.
This set-up alone already puts “Crimes of Grindelwald” leagues ahead of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The stakes are instantly higher. While the first installment is more of a delightful romp and kooky introduction to elements of this bizarre world and its inhabitants, the sequel has… an actual story. We’re getting a glimpse into wizard politics. We have a conflict. We have a mystery. We have a villain.
The whimsy of the first film remains and I was absolutely spellbound by the creatures we are introduced to. But this new and looming threat actually gives our characters something to do. Not only that, but it’s a deeply emotional exercise. Moments of this film hurt. We worry. We stress. We feel that loss. I will be the first to say that the Harry Potter films left some unfairly large shoes for all franchises stemming from the Wizarding World to fill. Which may be why the first “Fantastic Beasts” was such a letdown. How do you go from the Battle of Hogwarts to Eddie Redmayne performing a mating dance?
“Crimes of Grindelwald” is a clumsy, but sincere return to form.
Not only does this make for a more interesting story, but it instantly enhances the development of the characters. In the first film, this new cast of characters came off as a little silly. Perhaps even a tad two-dimensional. Here, we are exposed to their past, their traumas, and the experiences that have shaped them into the exceptional figures they are. And that only speaks to the familiar faces.
Lots of new stories to tell in “Crimes of Grindelwald” and, with that, exciting new characters. Standouts in both performance and interest in the story include Claudia Kim’s Nagini and Jude Law’s Dumbledore. Goddamn, he plays a good Dumbledore. 10/10 great Dumbledore.
Unfortunately, not all performances were winners and not every character brought something to the table. Let’s address the Depp in the room.
Placing Johnny Depp in the role of Grindelwald has been a controversy from day one. He is a divisive and unpopular figure that seems to be past his prime, with respect to his craft. If the name alone isn’t enough to turn you off, his performance will.
Depp’s Grindelwald suffers from the same sickness as the man, himself. Grindelwald is meant to be this disconcerting but eerily seductive figure. His softness is his strength. In moments, Depp pulls this off. In the mind of this critic, he has always been more effective in quiet and sincere roles versus whatever the hell you would classify the Mad Hatter as. But, the light shifts and you see Depp as haggard, flat, and just a bit too weird. Not unlike how you may view Depp in his current status as… well… washed up.
I couldn’t tell you whether it was the bitter taste I already had in my mouth or Depp’s total lack of life that killed the role for me. An unfortunate weak link in a much stronger cast.
This criticism may come as a nitpick but it is certainly one of the crimes of “Grindelwald.” It is disappointing when the setup for an upcoming conflict is painfully obvious. I likened the experience to my opinion on “The Desolation of Smaug.” Why did we have to have an entire movie (a fucking long movie, at that) talking about how bad it will be if we wake a dragon up, only to wake up the dragon and have to wait a whole year before confirming that it is, in fact, bad that the dragon woke up. That’s how this feels. It’s all build up and build up and then, cliffhanger for cliffhanger’s sake. Meanwhile, I know exactly what the first act of the next one is going to look like.
My final criticism is less a negative and more a question. Does fanservice get in the way of good filmmaking?
In case you were wondering, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is about 88% blatant fanservice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for it too. I got giddy and poked my partner’s shoulder over every little reference and nod. It was the stuff we harped on the most, as we were walking out of the theater.
Fanservice is fun. It is impossible to go toe-to-toe with the legacy of Harry Potter without feeding that fandom everything their heart desires.
This is fine.
Here’s what isn’t fine.
When you ask the question “Would I still have enjoyed this movie, if it didn’t have all that stuff?” and the answer is, “Probably not.”
I try to critique films on two separate axes of the film as a singular piece of art and the film as an enjoyable distraction. Is it exemplary cinema and is it fun to watch? I adore fan service and it makes the film-going experience fun, but no free passes for using it as a crutch. Especially, when you’ve got a whole well of lore to draw amazing and unique stories out of.
What can I say about “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald?”
It’s fine. In fact, it’s fun. It has flaws and plenty of them, but it comes wrapped in a great package. Fans of the Wizarding World and of the first “Fantastic Beasts” will have a wonderful time with this latest installment and even more skeptical fans will find the new revelations worth a watch.
Do you have to rush out on opening weekend? Probably not. But it’s worth the price of admission.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” opens in theaters on November 16.
Featured photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.