Why “Crimes of Grindelwald” Is a Victim of Second Movie Syndrome

by Gregory Tyler

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from many of the narrative hurdles that plague second installments of film series: The beginning of the story has already been established and we’re nowhere close to a rousing and emotional climax. Despite those issues, any entry in a film series should still be able to stand as a viable, stand-alone entry into the ongoing saga while deepening our relationships with its core characters and delivering a new, larger threat that must be countered or contained. Or instead, let that threat overwhelm our heroes and get them to a place to regroup and make another stand.

Crimes of Grindelwald fails to deliver on those counts.

As someone who hasn’t read the books and has only seen the Harry Potter movies twice through – except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my favorite – Crimes of Grindelwald lacks the wonder and power of its predecessors. I wasn’t particularly enamored with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it, much like Newt himself, had a childlike sense of discovery. Its visual and score style reflected its main character’s view of the world: its color palette filled with blues and golds and musical themes evoking innocence, wonder, and heroism. Any new creatures shown in Crimes of Grindelwald seem like an obligation to warrant inclusion of the Fantastic Beasts moniker and the Niffler aside, have no real bearing on the story being told.

And oh, the story. Beginning with an exciting, if visually confusing, set piece of Grindelwald’s escape, the movie bogs itself down with so many expanding storylines that it doesn’t have time to make any of them emotionally resonant or narratively compelling. Newt has to find Credence in Paris, and he moves from location to location trying to do so. The rest of the core group of characters from the first film are given little to do: Tina, also trying to find Credence, is angry about Newt’s supposed betrayal in a sloppily handled misunderstanding from a news article; and Jacob, once free from Queenie’s spell, travels around with Newt after she runs away. Our audience surrogate into this world, Jacob was the key to much of my enjoyment of the first film. Here, he has almost no personality other than to pine for Queenie. Most infuriatingly, Queenie’s surface-skimming journey is particularly wasted because while it is certainly understandable that she is upset about a rule that says she can’t marry Jacob, she joins Grindelwald rather quickly and without much prompting. I wish that this arc had played out over two movies, allowing Queenie and Jacob to have discussions and heartfelt talks, and question whether there is merit to Grindelwald’s position. After all, the topical issue of a charismatic leader enlisting the backing of understandably unhappy people to a cause that is twisted to serve only its leader’s wants and needs is clearly of interest to J.K. Rowling, but let’s take time to truly look into that darkness, shall we?

Even Credence (ultimately the focal point of the first film), who is of interest to everyone in the story, is reduced to standing around and hoping someone can tell him who his family is. He finds out, of course, and it is a wonderful tease for the story to come, but it has no real impact on this movie’s story. Instead, none of Crimes of Grindelwald’s storylines are given any real heft and the movie suffers most from that.

Instead, I am supposed to care about the plight of new characters like Leta Lestrange and Theseus Scamander, and in the absence of any connection to the core characters, it just doesn’t hold any real interest. Grindelwald, casting controversy aside, is really the focus of this film, and Johnny Depp delivers a tonally appropriate (a compliment these days) if less-than-truly-menacing performance. I realize that, thus far, while Grindelwald and Voldemort share a common vision of a world run by wizards, they go about their villainy in separate ways. Depp is fine, but he’s no Fiennes.

Since I am mentioning controversies, let me say this about the ones I know of: The inclusion of Minerva McGonagall was so brief as to be innocuous. One hopes Rowling has a good reason for having McGonagall at Hogwarts before she was even born. I realize that Nagini once being human has some disturbing undertones in the scheme of things later on, but I don’t object to darkness, provided it is interesting. Yet again, Nagini really has nothing to do. Lastly, as a gay man, I was satisfied with the way the movie handled the past relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. These movies have never been about charting romantic or sexual interest much beyond the point of “Gee, I fancy you,” so it didn’t bother me that their relationship was nothing more than meaningful looks. However, I’m not sure I like the blood pact becoming a physical object that may then later be used to write off the intimacy briefly shown in this film.

On the technical side, it’s unsurprisingly top of the line. These artists and technicians know what they’re doing at this point, so the focus should be on telling the best story. As Newt’s worldview was reflected in the first film’s style, so, too, does Crimes of Grindelwald reflect Grindelwald’s darker frame of mind. The first film’s bright colors are replaced by deep blacks, grays, and browns. It looks and sounds great, but the story feels like the middle section of a book and not a full novel entry in a series. It begins with a visual bang and ends with a narrative whisper. It’s breathlessly running around from place to place, yet only moving a few inches story-wise. The rushed pace doesn’t really move the story forward and it doesn’t really move us through its characters and their actions.

Obviously, though I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling knows how to tell complex, emotionally satisfying stories in the form of novels. I’m just not sure she’s yet mastered the art of screenwriting. Despite readers’ favorite moments being cut, the movie adaptations of the Potter books work because plotlines not directly related to Harry’s story were jettisoned to streamline the massive arc of the story. Maybe if someone put the brakes on the rush to put out more Potterverse material, and Rowling wrote some new books and let someone else adapt them, we’d be in a much more fantastical place, indeed.