Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is…well, to be honest, I don’t know if it can be called bad. I have an inherent interest in the wizarding world, and the film rewarded my interest, allowing me to dive into magical 1927 Paris and the intrigues and magics and creatures of that domain. It was a very, very low bar for me to be entertained by this film, and the film hit it, because of course it did. I would actually even go so far to say that I enjoyed it better than the first one. The first one was slow-paced, with uninteresting action and almost no color; The Crimes of Grindelwald is stuffed to the gills, and the action is beautiful and colorful. In short, it has things that make it good. It clears the basic tests it needs to clear.
Sadly, the reason I’m mentioning all these good qualities first is because the film has a lot of problems. A lot of them. Most of it is more spoilery, which I’ll go into after the cut, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, you should know that this film is a lot more aware of the legacy this film has, to tie into the Harry Potter saga and explain how this era led to the next. There’s some really interesting ideas in this film, but, ultimately, they are buried under layers of confusion, presumably because Warner Brothers still has three more movies to fill with this drama. However, it feels less like stage-setting for interesting story than it does someone taking the story threads and knotting them into oblivion. Wherever the story is intended to go, this film does not do a great job of making clear, and you’re going to have a lot of questions that don’t feel like they should be questions at all.
Got that? Let’s discuss the spoilers. Spoilers past this point, guys.
My side of the internet has made a lot of criticisms about two things: Johnny Depp as Grindelwald and the purported lack of commitment to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s gay romance.
To the first: Depp is a shitbag and the franchise’s commitment to him is even more baffling after having seen the movie. The role is written better than it’s acted; JK Rowling knows how to keep a villain in the shadows, deploying him rarely, and this script does that well, letting Grindelwald be menacing and evil without overplaying himself. Depp is just…there. His costume and makeup design does more to make him scary than he does; he looks unnatural, like a bloated, bleached whale carcass. (Yes, that’s mean. Johnny Depp literally owns an island, he can cry about it there.) Depp’s career, at its high points, has been all about commitment to a role, but he doesn’t commit anything to Grindelwald. His character is written as fairly quiet, only speaking when he really needs to, but Depp could’ve employed some physical acting to enhance the character, and he just…doesn’t. He stands there, and says his lines as needed. He’s got a speech at the end that’s good, but could have been amazing if I’d actually been afraid of him.
The gay representation also suffers from that lack of commitment. At one point, Dumbledore is asked to fight Grindelwald, and responds that he can’t. The asker then says, “oh, because of this?” and summons an image of Dumbledore and Grindelwald…standing several feet apart. The most affection they give each other is a handshake in a flashback; the most commitment to an emotional moment is Grindelwald appearing in Dumbledore’s reflection in the Mirror of Erised. It’s incredibly stupid, because the puzzle pieces they have are primed for emotional power. As young men, we learn, Dumbledore and Grindelwald made a blood pact to never hurt each other, made manifest in a silver necklace that Grindelwald cherishes. Dumbledore sees Grindelwald in Erised. There’s this great narrative potential for a lot of love and pain between them, exploring the ways they are committed to each other even though Grindelwald has become so radicalized as to be unrecognizable compared to his former self. Their connection is spelled out, but because this film doesn’t want to talk about their status as lovers, it won’t commit to anything at all.
(Digression: I don’t want to put any blame on Jude Law, who does a great job of playing an interesting new take on Dumbledore. He does a great job of translating “mysterious, cooky old man” into a young, passionate professor’s body, keeping his mystery and assorted closet skeletons intact. Also, Jude Law has been saying in interviews that he apparently pictured the role as him wearing a similar wardrobe to older Dumbledore, AKA sparkly purple star robes. Which says a lot about the impact of costuming, because, yeah, that would’ve been awesome, actually, and the grey suit they stuck him in doesn’t help the feeling that they couldn’t commit to anything interesting.)
Credence, yet another of JK Rowling’s unloved boys, was a better part of the first film and his part in this film, struggling to learn if he has a glorious magical heritage, is still compelling. The problem is the reveal. Lita’s drama, her reveal, was really interesting. It’s similarly interesting that the question we’re asked the whole movie, whether Credence is a Lestrange, is answered with a “no.” Focusing these films on adult characters gives us the opportunity to tell these more mature, tragic stories on the nature of how and why people are good or bad, on how the wizarding world fails people. That’s good, at least.
(Also, it’s revealed twice over that the wizarding world is EXTREMELY bad at dealing with the idea of consent or handling crimes, because both Jacob and Lita’s mother suffer some pretty obvious breaches of consent that just…don’t get punished. Where’s the Auror SVU???)
However, the reveal that Credence is a Dumbledore breaks canon in a way that kind of feels unfixable. For one, according to this movie, Lita’s brother was the last male heir of the Lestrange line–and Lita, the only Lestrange daughter, dies by the end. The problem being that we know a few Lestranges exist in the events of Harry Potter? Who are they related to? Probably not Lita, since this film confirms that she’s the only black person in her family. The only person who we know is alive and even a little connected to this story was the badly-introduced-but-still-interesting Youssef, and he’s not a Lestrange at all.
And furthermore, Credence being a Dumbledore feels so baffling and unnecessary. He wasn’t mentioned in Deathly Hallows. We learned about most of the Dumbledore closet skeletons in that, so what’s going to happen in the next three movies to erase Credence from history, even more than the story of the Dumbledore sister? Why does Grindelwald say Professor Dumbledore is happy about Credence’s pain? That at least could be explained to be a lie, but it kind of feels like there must be more to that story–and I don’t look forward to these films running with the “Dumbledore is morally grey” thing, because it feels like they’re already teetering on his moral event horizon. If more shady shit is unpacked about Albus, he may come off as the real villain in all this, which doesn’t seem like the intended result.
Speaking of canon-breaking, the whole Nagini thing is just bizarre. The fact that she’s aligned with our good guys by the end is even worse. How is she going to end up a sidekick to evil by the end? And why did she have to be a woman of color treated as a creature? The idea of a blood curse turning a person into a beast is cool. The way it’s handled is way too restrained, yet also, full of bizarre choices that raise too many questions.
And, honestly, there’s just so much more to ask and so little that feels like it will be answered well. Why does Queenie fall prey to evil in only two quick scenes? What’s up with Grindelwald’s hookah skull? (That future-telling scene in the speech–again, neat idea, interesting character motivation, stuck in a film that doesn’t commit enough to give it real emotional lift.) Do I need to remember all of the badly-characterized aurors, bad guys, etc. that I met in this movie? The evil lady felt important, but was she? What was up with Nicolas Flamel’s book of portraits–it feels like it implies a conspiracy involving, yet bigger than, Dumbledore? Is that going to be fleshed out? Will we see Bunty again? When will JK Rowling ask other people to proofread her ideas about characters of color?
In The Crimes of Grindelwald, JK Rowling falls into a trap that several long-running franchises have fallen into, which is to fold all aspects of the story into a wider family drama. This is what the prequel Star Wars trilogy infamously did; the later seasons of Supernatural and Buffy did to mixed success; and, arguably, the X-Men film franchise, if you count “family” as including “fellow members of a superhero team, but mostly Hugh Jackman.” There seems to be this idea in longer-running stories, especially those helmed by one creator, that anything new needs to, ultimately, tie into the old, not just thematically and practically but through actual bloodlines. It’s not necessarily a bad idea; soap operas make their bread and butter on this idea, of families warring and grieving and loving through the years. The problem is that it makes more sense when your franchise focuses on, say, a town and a group of characters, as opposed to two different wizard wars separated by eighty years. Having Grindelwald kill a baby, evoking Voldemort’s own choice to kill a baby that set off the Harry Potter series? Thematically appropriate, interesting, a nice callback. Having a random new character suddenly be a member of a family that was important to certain parts of the original series? Strains credulity to the breaking point. I get that it feels like an easy win, from a writing standpoint, but from the perspective of a fan…I’m asking why it needed to happen.
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