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Non-Review Review: Fantastic Beasts – The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald knows its audience.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is a film consciously aimed at the audience member who has charted and navigated the family trees of the Harry Potter franchise, who knows the finer details of families that were never explicitly featured in the original series and who can recognise names that were never spoken aloud. This is a film that is geared towards the kinds of fans who devour supporting material, who pour enthusiastically and endlessly over the appendices to The Lord of the Rings.

Law student.

This is not to mock or belittle those sorts of fans. Indeed, there is something infectious and exciting in that enthusiasm, in standing outside a cinema and hear enthusiastic six-year-olds with a much better grasp of the dynamics at play than the adults who accompanied them. The eagerness with which these fans pour over the finer details is genuinely heartening, and some of it might even be absorbed by osmosis as they boast about “when” they “got” some twist or other. This a movie aimed at those who devour scenes of exposition and love a good flashback or six.

The only issue is that The Crimes of Grindelwald has precious little for the more casual audience member, whether the casual cinema-goer who just wants a night full of wizards and witches or the more relaxed fan who has only watched the films or read the books once a few years ago. For those audience members, The Crimes of Grindelwald does not offer nearly enough. Or it offers too much.

Partially wanted for crimes against fashion.

It is quite something for a two-hour-and-a-quarter film to feel seriously overstuffed, but The Crimes of Grindelwald is practically bursting at the edges. The film features two sets of secret siblings, a whole host of convoluted plans that intersect and diverge at various points in the narrative, a whole bunch of major narrative reversals from the end of the previous film, a rather clumsy political metaphor about the rise of fascism that requires both characters and audience members to be idiots, a vaguely motivated double-cross, a clumsily-executed tripple cross, an immortal alchemist…

There really is too much to discuss in the context of The Crimes of Grindelwald, and any one of these details would merit a particularly involved discussion about why the element doesn’t work in isolation or as part of a larger whole. It is perhaps revealing that the eponymous fantastic beasts feel so inessential to the narrative that they are effectively crammed into the nooks and crannies of the script, wherever there might be room to house them.

We won’t always have Paris.

To be fair, the “fantastic beasts” brand always seemed a strange title to house an epic world-spanning prequel to the Harry Potter series. It seems like the production brand of the “wizarding world” would make a much better narrative framework for these sorts of stories; even ignoring the alliteration, it reflects the desire of these stories to expand the scope of Harry Potter beyond the United Kingdom towards American cities like New York or continental capitals like Paris.

The Crimes of Grindelwald seems to reflexively understand the absurdity of the “fantastic beasts” brand, shrinking it down to supra-text within the logo design. The average audience member might be forgiven for not realising that the title came with a two-word prefix. Even within the narrative, the fantastic beasts feel superfluous and unnecessary, a narrative afterthought rather than anything of importance to the story being told.

Clocking in.

An emotional reunion is broken up when a creature designed to look like a Chinese dragon rampages through Paris, but the creature is quickly subdued and gently restrained. When an ambiguous figure with a deeply personal connection to the narrative conveniently collapses at a particular opportune moment for the heroes, it is revealed that he has been infected by a magical parasite from the “water dragons” who live in the sewers. When Newt finds himself cast as a magical crime scene investigator, he enlists the aid of the break-out platypus creature from the previous film.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a surprisingly fun film, albeit one that felt rather clumsy and unnecessary in places. The decision to downplay the role of the creatures in The Crimes of Grindelwald is a shame, denying the film some of the charm of its predecessor. This isn’t the only tension that exists between Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Crimes of Grindelwald, which seem strangely at odds with one another for two entries in a reportedly planned series from the same writer and director.

To be fair, some of the issue can be traced back to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which went very apocalyptic in terms of scale. The opening scenes of The Crimes of Grindelwald feature some blunt exposition about how Newt “destroyed half of New York.” While the Harry Potter films made a point to slowly and gradually build towards that sort of spectacle, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them kicked off a franchise at the highest possible volume. So it is no surprise that The Crimes of Grindelwald almost immediately turns down the knob.

Two major reversals come almost immediately in The Crimes of Grindelwald: the reveal that the mysterious Credence Barebone is still alive after seeming to die at the end of the previous film and that Jacob Kowalski has had his memory restored after being “obliviated” in the coda to that action climax. These are big events in the context of The Crimes of Grindelwald, but they are simply stated out loud and then accepted as fact. They are not big reveals or major twists. They are just straight-up reversals of major dramatic and emotional beats in the previous film.

This is perhaps Matt Smith’s greatest legacy.

Again, there is a sense in which these reversals make a great deal of sense. Most obviously, Ezra Miller and Dan Fogler were huge assets to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, so it only makes sense that The Crimes of Grindelwald would not want to lose two important players. Fans (and just general audience members) loved these characters, so why would The Crimes of Grindelwald want to handicap itself by having to start without them. These are defensible decisions from a production standpoint.

Narratively, they are disastrous. Why should the audience trust any of the major emotional beats in The Crimes of Grindelwald if this franchise would so casually and so flippantly reverse two of the previous film’s most affecting moments? What is to stop the writer and director of the next film – who will likely be the same writer and director of this film – from deciding just as casually and just as flippantly to reverse the big dramatic twists in The Crimes of Grindelwald? The manner in which The Crimes of Grindelwald handles these twists betrays the audience.

What a load of Hogwarts.

Similarly, the benefit of big emotional departures like those at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that they clear emotional clutter from an ongoing narrative. The franchise is going to press ahead, and it is going to want to introduce new elements as it goes. In fact, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them even signposted the presence of Zoe Kravitz in The Crimes of Grindelwald. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was already quite packed. Taking Credence and Jacob out of play would leave room in the roster for new characters.

Instead, The Crimes of Grindelwald tries to have its cake and eat it. It brings back virtually every important character from the previous film, and adds another half-dozen major characters for good measure. The result is a film in which every major character struggles to find room to breath. Major characters are also arranged along different threads, so that various characters can all but disappear from the story for up to a half-an-hour at the time. Old characters are affected, especially Credence himself, but new characters suffer most egregiously.

A certain alchemistry.

This demonstrates the third way in which the clumsy return of Credence and Jacob to the story underscores the issues with The Crimes of Grindelwald. These two big returns are not played as emotional revelations, instead handled with a bunch of awkward exposition. Credence’s survival is announced in what amounts to a panel interview and briefing, rather than as any particularly emotional moment. Jacob wanders in Newt’s apartment, awkwardly explains why he is back, and then the film gets back to pretending that Jacob and Newt never split up.

All logical questions are brushed aside. It doesn’t matter how Credence survived or how the Ministry of Magic knows that he survived, any more than it matters how all the various characters happen to end up following the same trail of red herrings to bring them into conflict before the narrative can wrongfoot them. Similarly, nobody ever wonders whether Jacob should be “obliviated” again, not even the by-the-book wizard cop who was so adamant that his memory be wiped the first time around.

“I’m surprised that they they didn’t just call me The Thin White Duke.”

This is indicative to how The Crimes of Grindelwald tells its story. This is a movie that doesn’t tell its own story, instead counting on the characters within it to tell their story and hope that it all fits together. The narrative in The Crimes of Grindelwald repeatedly pauses for big exposition dumps that are delivered in a very straightforward manner, but with little attention paid to the emotional reality of the information provided. All of the characters have relations and supporting ensembles, to the point that some major characters never even appear on screen.

The Crimes of Grindelwald pauses repeatedly to offer awkward back story and in-universe history that explains the characters and their dynamics, often pausing the action in order to indulge the nostalgia of fictional characters within a fictional world. This is most obvious in the middle section of the film, which features an extended visit to Hogwarts and (within that) an extended flashback explaining Newt’s teenage love. All of this slows the action to a halt, and often features nested scenes of the characters telling rather than the film showing.

Nur(emberg) the battle to the strong…

This approach reaches its zenith towards the climax, in which the movie’s slow and steady march towards what can only be described as “Wizard Nuremberg” is interrupted for a very extended exposition dump in a crypt in which a bunch of new characters lay out competing narratives of family trauma. The storytelling is as convoluted as the internal logic of Venom. One character offers an emotional game-changing reveal, only for another character to pause and offer any even gamier-changing reveal. All of this is new information, overwritten almost as quickly as it is revealed.

With all of this going on, very few of the new characters really get any room to develop. Perhaps realising the awkwardness of trying to construct an allegory for racism and fascism with a white-only cast, The Crimes of Grindelwald adds some much-needed diversity to the supporting cast. However, there is so much going on that Claudia Kim, Zoë Kravitz and William Nadylam never actually get anything meaningful to do. It is suffocating. This is without adding in all the plots about siblings and all the secret dynamics that are difficult to track in real time.

Keeping it brief.

There is a sense in which The Crimes of Grindelwald is consciously flustered by the demands of the narrative that it finds itself constructing. The editting on the film is horrifically sloppy, perhaps reflecting the need to get the film in under a specific runtime without cutting any actual dialogue. As a result, a lot of action sequences seem choppy and truncated. Characters move too far between cuts for the rhythm of the scene, and connecting footage is often missing. Newt is in a sewer, and then in the middle of the street. Newt is atop a book case and then on the ground.

These structural issues do not account for the awkward politics and characterisation within The Crimes of Grindelwald. The film is very consciously aiming towards an allegory for the rise of fascism and racism, literally within the space between the wars and allegorically within the present to which the film will be released. This is a bold move, but certainly not an unprecedented one. After all, fantasy sagas like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are often engaged with the rise of fascism.

Returning for a spell…

However, The Crimes of Grindelwald bungles its political subtext for cheap narrative tricks. Most obviously, the film seems to advocate that the worst thing that any character can do is to try to contain or confront fascism. Representatives of the Ministry of Magic are warned not to break up a public meeting organised by Grindelwald to spread his beliefs. When they try to silence him, things go catastrophically wrong. An innocent person is killed, and Grindelwald can portray his followers as victimised and oppressed for their beliefs.

This is a dangerous tenant of political thought, with The Crimes of Grindelwald seeming arguing that fascists should be allowed to convene and organise without any opposition, and suggesting that attempts to curtail fascist speech inevitably empower them. This is rather tasteless and ill-judged. Ignoring arguments about the efficiency of de-platforming fascists, and the harm caused by giving them attention and space, it also comes dangerous close to “those who fight fascists are as bad as fascists”, glossing over realities like the death of Heather Heyer.

More to the point, in service of a particularly cheap narrative trick, The Crimes of Grindelwald has a major supporting character seduced by Grindelwald. This is standard stuff in any long-running series, to have a major betrayal designed to spark the audience’s emotional engagement and get them on the edge of their seats. However, The Crimes of Grindelwald cannot reconcile the obvious racism of the title character with the central beliefs of the betraying character, and so that character’s emotional journey hinges on the audience thinking of that character as completely crazy.

There is a sense in which The Crimes of Grindelwald wants to be a story of fascism without understanding fascism. Certainly, there is a lot of evocative imagery in Grindelwald’s rhetoric about his desire to dominate mankind, and the film even features allusions to concentration camps and the destruction of Paris. However, none of this really clicks together. The Crimes of Grindelwald is a film that suggests Grindelwald is at once a wizard supremacist who would somehow be more supportive of miscegenation than the present regime.

Streets ahead.

It is hard to tell if J.K. Rowling simply does not understand how fascism works, or if the plotting of the film became so convoluted that she simply stopped caring as she reached the climax. Either way, it is a very broad and very disappointing exploration of themes that are vitally important at this moment and which desperately need to be discussed and explored, especially in entertainment aimed at children who are growing up in a world like this.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is a mess.

 

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11 Responses

  1. Well, this is disappointing. I actually quite liked the first film despite its flaws, mainly for the titular beasts. I’m pretty sure that people agreed that was the best part of the first film-so why would they abandon it in favor of a re-hash of the ‘good wizards vs bad wizards’ that was executed much better in the original Harry Potter series.

    • Yep. I was surprised at how much I liked the first film, and was cautiously optimistic about the sequel. It’s a shame, because the best parts of the original film are treated as obligations in the second, while the worst parts of the first film are amplified.

  2. You haven’t commented on Johnny Depp’s performance over the course of the film. Especially given it’s his first high level performance in a while since this whole debacle with his financial standings.

    • It’s not a great performance, but being honest I can’t see how it would be even if Depp were consciously pushing himself in a way that I don’t think he has in quite a while. There’s not a lot of room for any of the performances to breath, even Jude Law’s potentially interesting turn as Dumbledore, which stops and starts as the film jumps around its exposition delivery mechanisms.

  3. “It is hard to tell if J.K. Rowling simply does not understand how fascism works”

    That’s a given if you read her tweets.

  4. Great review. But I quite enjoyed the film. Yes it has problems, editing and screenplay is terrible. Camera work is jarring in scenes with human characters. Really the movie could have been half an hour shorter. But, maybe I am just too biased towards this world, but I had a good time at the cinema. Especially the last sequence. Thats exactly what I expected from a movie with adult wizards and witches.

  5. You know, thinking about it, crimes of grindlewald does have a lot of problems that the last jedi did too

    • Even as somebody who doesn’t love The Last Jedi as much as most critics/casual audiences, I think that’s a rather unfair comparison.

      • Both movies go against eh message extablished by all previous movies in the series (star wars was about Skywalker family, and Harry potter was about how you don’t need a grand lineage to be special) . Both have too many main characters, which in turn makes the movies jump around too much. Both movies tried to amir the story go in a direction that age old fans didn’t like.
        The movie themselves are very different, but their problems compared to other movies in the series are quite similar.

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