By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 15, 2018)
Welcome back to the Wizarding World of JK Rowling. I say that as if I work at the branded theme park area in Florida, but real talk, I’m hoping to get married and have a child so I have an excuse to visit Diagon Alley for myself. I’m an unabashed mega fan of the Harry Potter universe, and as such, this was easily one of my most anticipated major releases of 2018.
I was more than satisfied by the original spinoff film two years ago, and I still liked Volume 2 of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, though perhaps in a different way. I can say that although some of the charm of the initial story disappears in the sequel, it vanishes for a very good reason:
There’s business to take care of.
The trials, travails, and animal adoration of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his eclectic associates and friends was a joy to watch, and remains so, but this time around, Yates directs Rowling’s story with less attention to wonder and more to darkness, as the tale encompasses the escape from prison of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who brings a unified populist message designed to force all wizards to make a decision and choose sides in a potential war between pure-bloods and non-wizards, muggles, and half bloods.
If portions of this plot line sound familiar, it’s because they are. The pure-blood angle has been a staple of Harry Potter from the outset, as classicism and social issues remain key to the larger story. Grindelwald is an early variation of a Death Eater, or taken out of the fantasy and into the reality, probably someone the author would assume to be a dangerous nationalist and a racist with ethnocentrism as a primary driving force.
One problem I had with the 2018 film is a convoluted and overly complex plot that came from a stage-setting concept. This is absolutely a “move the pieces into position” movie. Usually within Harry Potter, the first scene sets things into motion and the remainder of the film is working from that point to a natural end, or in some cases a mild cliffhanger. Here, we never get to a natural end, instead building to a major twist and reveal just as the credits roll. If you recall the conclusion to The Matrix Reloaded, that’s more the way The Crimes of Grindelwald ends.
After clearly labeling its stakes following a climax that’s more on “which side are you on” than any kind of gigantic on-screen battle, everything just stops for the time being.
There is a plethora of heavy dialogue and a beautiful score from James Newton Howard, terrific performances from the cast, particularly Depp and Jude Law, who plays the younger Albus Dumbledore, and splendid visuals to be found throughout the 134-minute run time. Redmayne’s Scamander is still just as awkward, likable, and socially inept as always, and his creatures still light up the screen. He is tremendous with this character, as he usually is with anything he can sink his teeth into. It was not going to be an easy task to follow in Daniel Radcliffe’s footsteps, but Eddie has proven to be up to the challenge. He doesn’t supplant the boy who lived, but it’s okay to be Frasier Crane next to Sam Malone.
Dan Fogler was a breath of fresh air in the first Beasts, and he’s still great here, though not to the same level. That may have to do with the novelty of the Jacob Kowalski character being a bit more familiar and the script not featuring quite as many of his quips and lighthearted slapstick moments, plus a change in the romance angle with Queenie Goldstein. Alison Sudol also reprises that role and is very good, perhaps better this time around because of the depth involved in her side of the story. Katherine Waterston continues to play Queenie’s sister, Tina, as static as possible 95% of the time, but with enough of a hint of whimsy and care for Newt that it clicks. With the screen time given, Claudia Kim and Callum Turner maximize their scenes as well. Both should be larger points of emphasis in the third installment, as the seeds were certainly planted for their futures.
Depp and Law shine brightest, along with Redmayne, and although Ezra Miller’s Creedence Barebone is largely the movie’s most important character in respect to the overall plot, watching him on screen is arguably the least interesting thing about The Crimes of Grindelwald. Creedence is tortured and searching for his true identity, which does work, but it also leads to a lot of brooding or somewhat stilted acting. It’s what was required of the role, so it’s not a knock on Miller, but the character hopefully will become more fun to watch in the future. He’s a bit of a downer because he has to be at this stage of the game.
One other character and performance of note comes from Zoe Kravitz, whose Leta Lestrange serves as an integral part of Newt’s past and present. From an emotional resonance standpoint, her portion of the story and the actions she chooses are among the film’s strongest highlights. Kravitz does well in the role, and it’s Leta is crucial to Newt’s maturation and his decision-making within the plot.
“Animals” are used more effectively in Crimes than in the original, because it’s not quite as constant or in your face. There’s a purpose behind virtually every creature we encounter, and most of them are not just well-placed, but provide necessary levity or wonder to counteract the more diabolical design
of the plot. There were moments in the 2016 movie where it felt almost too “magical” in the world and the focus would shift away from a story we all want to see to Newt playing with monsters for a hair too long. It would veer towards Avatar in an eye-roll kind of way. That’s virtually never the case in Grindelwald.
The issue with the film is that too much time is wasted placing people in position at the expense of actually…doing stuff.
Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed my time with this tenth voyage through the Wizarding World, and honestly I want to go back and see it again, just to pay closer attention to what’s being said. I continually waited for major things to happen, and if you’re too concerned with what hasn’t happened yet, you will miss the intricacies of the generally well-crafted dialogue. It sounds worse than it is to say this is probably the weakest of the ten movies, because it’s not bad. It’s just not a particular standout, at least not following a first viewing.
With that said, it’s a visual treat and it doesn’t drag. There do have to be spots in any novel, any show, any movie where the action stops and the universe is given a chance to exhale. That’s what much of Grindelwald felt like. There were high stakes and some tough moments with a few heartbreaking sequences, but this was the “middle” portion of a book, where it isn’t forgettable, but the bullet points are fewer and farther between.
Without question, JK Rowling wanted politics to play a role in The Crimes of Grindelwald, with allusions to Donald Trump in Gellert Grindelwald’s movement, the rise of populism, and the fear of increasing nationalism. Newt Scamander also faces problems moving through the various film locales, which span from London to Paris to Austria to New York, due to an international travel ban that only lifts if he agrees to join the Ministry of Magic alongside his brother. No doubt this is going to lead to a lot of think pieces, as will the subtle social commentary surrounding Dumbledore’s intimate friendship and relationship with Grindelwald. Rowling is rather outspoken on social media in various political stances, so this isn’t entirely surprising, but it will turn off some who just want to be entertained.
In some respects, I’m one of them, although the movie doesn’t beat you over the head with its message. It’s a bit more prevalent than I’d have preferred, but it comes with the territory to a certain extent. The basis of the plot is better at times than its execution, which gets lost in the weeds with over-explanation that only manages to confuse what could be simple tentpole plot points.
Still, if you’re a fan of Rowling’s world and those that inhabit it, there’s still plenty here to sink your teeth into. The performances are strong, it’s aesthetically stunning, Howard’s score is another gem, and there are a few of those “oh cool” moments that might catch you off guard.
You won’t be summarily disappointed when you leave the theater, but you’ll likely leave without the sense of enchantment Rowling hoped for. The ending itself does work well and will result in some “ooooohs” and “ahhhhs” for portions of the audience. The Crimes of Grindelwald will make you want to watch what came before and discuss what might be to come more than it will satiate you on its own.
I feel comfortable with a B-, because it’s merely good, not very good or great. I still think the vast majority who see it will like it more than most critics, as I did. I’m a sucker for this universe, unapologetically so, and that won’t change. It’s the weakest of the ten films, but by no means is it a waste of time. It still casts a spell, but the magic isn’t unbreakable, it’s merely a temporary effect when viewed in a vacuum.