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The Crimes of Grindelwald: A Chaotic, Bewildering, Frustrating Mess

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a mediocre movie that expanded on the universe of Harry Potter in some interesting ways with generally engaging new characters who offered a refreshing take, while being let down by terrible visual effects and an inorganic subplot that was mostly set-up for future movies and lore. However after seeing its sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I find myself thinking back nostalgically to that movie of two years ago as something quite great by comparison. It’s not until seeing the potential squandered, that I realize what was really there.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is a very bad movie. The worst this franchise has spawned since The Half-Blood Prince. Just like it, The Crimes of Grindelwald has little plot of its own that’s not just setting up another movie, and what plot it does have is bafflingly dumb, convoluted, problematic, or a mixture of all three.
After capture at the end of the last movie, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) manages to escape his American prison to pursue the powerful boy Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) whom he intends to use as a weapon in his evil cause. Meanwhile, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is tasked by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to go to Paris and seek out Credence; only taking up the offer upon learning Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is there, joined by Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) on his own quest to win back Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). These and a couple other subplots inevitably lead to a direct confrontation with Grindelwald himself.
So as you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this movie, and the biggest problem should be apparent. This is a movie with no coherent focus. Each storyline is on equal terms with the others, and only Credence’s, the least interesting by far, has any semblance of direction. The movie jumps between plot points frequently and is constantly revealing new information at the expense of narrative trajectory. Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) for example, a childhood friend of Newt’s, is given a lot of build-up, a tragic past, and a whole story of her own that’s utterly meaningless. Obviously she’s meant to fill in some apocryphal history as the ancestor of a significant character in the Harry Potter series, but as pertains to the story at hand, she contributes nothing to its ultimate purpose. Even Newt, the supposed main character, is mostly innocuous. Why attach so much significance in this grand wizard conflict to a magical zoologist? And expectedly, his role in the bigger story is quite minor. Every time the movie returns its attention to him and the other main characters from the last film, it feels like it’s out of obligation. This is no better exemplified than in the brazenly contrived way Jacob and Queenie re-enter the story.
David Yates is the director, but he’s always been just a director-for-hire; this is J.K. Rowling’s story. And not only is she perfectly willing to fill the movie with details and backstories that simply don’t matter, but she seems to take delight in rewriting her own continuity. There are numerous things for Harry Potter fans to pick apart that don’t make any sense against what’s been established previously; something which has never bothered Rowling though, who’s always had a George Lucas kind of devil-may-care attitude to retroactively making things canon. 
Eddie Redmayne’s still fine but his stammering befuddlement is notably accentuated, making for even more annoying scenes of awkward social interaction. Katherine Waterston is trying her best through middling material, as is Alison Sudol who’s particularly hard-done by a script that gives her the worst, arguably most bizarre character arc of the film. And Dan Fogler is still great as the best and most compelling character, though with far less of a role than he had before. However Callum Turner falls largely into the background as Newt’s brother -a troubled relationship that a smarter movie would have taken advantage of. Ezra Miller is no better here than he was in the first Fantastic Beasts, still just sauntering around bluntly. The best performance comes from Jude Law, who nicely captures Dumbledore’s personality and prestige. But of course the elephant in the room of this cast is Johnny Depp. Putting aside the indiscretions that make his very presence uncomfortable, he plays the title villain with way more effort than he gave the last Pirates film, but doesn’t colour him with enough character to justify replacing Colin Farrell.
Grindelwald is of course an allegorical figure, intended to stand in for a number of past (and present) dangerous ideologues and their recruitment tactics and rhetoric. But while this and other social commentary and political allusions are made clear, there are likewise really troublesome themes to this movie Rowling didn’t think through. The infamous Nagini reveal, which is explained very pointedly and thoroughly in the movie, is still stupid and pointless, even without its quasi-racist connotations given what we know becomes of that character. A love spell is once again irresponsibly treated as a joke in the context of a movie that elsewhere equates it directly with sexual abuse. And there’s a reference to World War II in this movie that’s at best astonishingly incongruent, at worst grossly tone-deaf.
And atop everything else, this film isn’t well-structured. The pacing’s abysmal and one dramatic confrontation scene is interrupted by not one, but two expository backstories, the former reaching a conclusion just for the latter to debunk it, adding nothing constructive. Even some of the editing is sloppy and the creatures still look awful.
This film isn’t at all about the crimes of Grindelwald or fantastic beasts, and as such the title makes perfect sense for such a confused wreck. If Rowling wants to tell a story about Grindelwald’s rise to power, she should just tell a coherent story that doesn’t feel like she’s making it up as she goes along, and without having to muddy it with irrelevant world building and cramming in characters who have nothing to do with this greater conflict. And she should do it novel form, because amidst the strangeness of this movie there is creativity. But it’s creativity nigh impossible to appreciate among all the incompetence.

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