Directed by: David Yates Written by: J.K. Rowling
I recently found myself puzzling through a “moral” dilemma. As an aspiring critic, it troubles me that whether I praise films or not seems to be based on whether I enjoy them and not some higher, more refined criteria. I had this anxiety assuage a little when I watched Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
I undoubtedly enjoyed the film due to a combination of my identification with protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), its use of familiar faces (ie Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the way in which magic adds a playful element to action scenes, making them more enjoyable for this non-action-fan. Yet alongside this enjoyment I also felt dissatisfaction. I liked the process of watching the film, yet felt completely underwhelmed as it ended.
While giving away as little as possible, I must say that the ending of The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like an underwhelming return to where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left viewers off. Literally, this isn’t true. Some key facts about the characters change, and we go from knowing nothing to knowing the basics about Grindelwald. But facts changing does not a narrative make. In her first attempt at sequel writing, J.K. Rowling produced Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets a tale in which protagonist Harry learns a new mythology, is exposed to bigotry, encounters both a new arch-villain and new anti-hero, and also gains a deeper understanding of the previously introduced characters Hagrid and Ginny. By contrast in The Crimes of Grindelwald protagonist Newt Scamander runs around as part of a middle-of-the-road mission, another major character also runs around trying to figure out his identity, yet another character faces a horribly rushed moral dilemma and Grindelwald gives a speech and shoots some flames from his wand.
Rather than simply expressing my disappointment with this film, I think it is worth considering the structural flaws that made it the way it is. One is that it has long been established there were to five Fantastic Beasts movies, a total that was perhaps pitched with commercial rather than narrative considerations in mind. The first Fantastic Beasts seems to have been written in such a way that if things didn’t pan out, it would work as a standalone movie: it ends with two of its major characters in being written out. Rather than finding a clever way to respond to this drama (ie finding an emotionally compelling manner to write the characters back in) The Crimes of Grindelwald acts as if the write-outs never happened and rushes the characters back into the story.
Another key structural problem for The Grimes of Grindelwald is that unlike Rowling’s previous Potter-universe series, it is not set in the structured environment of a school. Harry Potter’s story is set up to develop at a nice pace as each book/school year introduces Harry and company as slightly more educated and ready to engage new wonders, and recklessly take on new terrors. As a story of adults The Crimes of Grindelwald gives its characters no time to learn, engage in entertaining but petty conflicts, or develop false theories about their world. Instead they are thrown right into action.
Speaking of developing false theories, that’s a motif that worked very well in the Harry Potter stories (you know questions like who opened the chamber of secrets? Who was Voldemort’s sidekick, etc?) that is attempted in, but falls flat in The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is partially, because, the false theory is not sold to us through the minds of determined, but not-all-knowing children, partially because the truth that counters the false theory isn’t set up in any interesting way, and partially because the theory is inconsequential to the film’s action.While this underwhelming false theory is not solely the product of this film not being set at Hogwart’s story, it certainly didn’t help Rowling in this case that she was writing about action-ready adults as opposed to inquiring children.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is not without its merits. While not as prominent as the magical creatures in the series’ first incarnation, the beasts in this one are indeed fantastic. And while the film’s mediocre title isn’t exactly a good fit for its plot (the film is not the series of vignettes on Grindelwald’s exploits the title suggests), Grindelwald nonetheless establishes himself as a subtly solid villain.
As a kid reading Harry Potter works I remember being excited when I first read mention of the dark wizard called Grindelwald, thinking “finally! a villain other than Voldemort for once.” I was subsequently disappointed, however, when I learned that Grindelwald, like Voldemort was a pure-blood-supremacist. So in other words, he was a different villain from Voldemort, but not really. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, finds a nice balance between conflating and differentiating Voldemort and Grindelwald. Voldemort is a blatant pure-blood supremacist: a straight-forward Nazi analogue. He and his followers mince no words in expressing their contempt for muggles and muggle-born wizards. The suit-dawning Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), by contrast, bares more resemblance to Richard Spencer than Adolph Hitler, employing “separate-but-equal” rhetoric in place of outright supremacism. While from a political perspective I think it’s important to treat explicit and (barely)-non-explicit racist ideologies as one in the same, from a character development perspective the two ideologies play out differently, and Grindelwald indeed comes across as having a demeanor and brand of villainy unique from Voldemort’s.
I similarly found it enjoyable to see a young Dumbledore. Given that the character’s gentle-genius persona seems tied to his old age in the Harry Potter series, seeing him portrayed as more of a Remus Lupin figure is engaging, even if the difference is subtle. On the other hand, I feel the film failed to capitalize on the power of having Dumbledore as a character. One of the film’s key motifs is Dumbledore’s personal refusal to fight Grindelwald. For much of the film this seems a compelling source of moral tension rooted in love or perhaps a cautious pacifism. Alas, the film ends by offering another explanation for Dumbledore’s refusal to fight which is nowhere near as powerful.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is not dull: it’s as magical as it’s predecessors. But it taught me how it’s very possible to both enjoy and be deeply disappointed with a film. Harry Potter (and even the first Fantastic Beasts) stories always left me with favorite scenes, characters and lines. The Crimes of Grindelwald by contrast does little to make jaws drop, and little to sell its characters. As someone who will no doubt feel excited again when its sequel comes out, I can only hope this stories shortcomings are not predictive of what is to come and that Rowling can indeed work her magic again, even in the absence of the Hogwarts infrastructure.