3:00 pm EST, November 16, 2018

‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ movie review: No spell can clean up this mess

Two years after Fantastic Beasts brought us back to the Wizarding World, The Crimes of Grindelwald may leave audiences with no desire to return.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a bulky and rather unpleasant name, opens on the American Ministry of Magic (located in the Empire State Building) in 1927. The evil and powerful wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, unfortunately) is being transported to Europe to face judgement for his crimes. With the help of his followers, he manages to make a grand escape.

I can only assume that the opening sequence of the movie is meant to excite audiences, ramping up the tension and adrenaline for the two hour and 15 minute movie they’re about to sit through. Instead, audiences will bear witness to one of the worst set pieces to ever appear in the franchise; it’s lifeless, predictable, barely coherent, and astonishingly ugly.

Ugly is a harsh word, but it’s pretty accurate. CGI in the Harry Potter universe has never looked worse than it does in The Crimes of Grindelwald. The movie reportedly cost $200 million to produce, which is a lot of very real money for a movie that looks very fake. From the beasts themselves, to landscapes and backdrops, to even the very interiors of the Ministry, you may begin to wonder why they didn’t just make this an animated feature. The only set pieces that look real are the ones they re-use from Hogwarts.

Grindelwald’s escape sets the tone for the movie, one that disappoints far more frequently than it delights.

Crimes of Grindelwald review

The movie picks up three months later with Newt Scamander at the British Ministry of Magic. After the events of the last movie, Newt has been banned from traveling internationally. His attempt to convince the Ministry to allow him to travel abroad fails after he refuses their offer to become an Auror.

Newt’s visit to the Ministry introduces us to his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), and his fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). Naturally, Newt is also in love with her.

Leta is one of the principal protagonists in The Crimes of Grindelwald, mostly because her backstory gives the movie the third act “twist” it needs to carry itself to the finish line. However, before we get there, we see in flashbacks some of Leta’s life at Hogwarts.

In this flashback, we see Leta bullied by her peers, but we are introduced to her close friendship with Newt. There’s a glimmer of what made the original Harry Potter franchise so special in these scenes; perhaps it’s because these scenes inhabit a familiar world, but it’s hard to ignore that the focus on close friendship and burgeoning magical talent is what makes this franchise work.

After Newt’s rejection from the Ministry, he meets with young Dumbledore (Jude Law). Dumbledore asks for Newt’s help in tracking down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to prevent the young and dangerously powerful wizard from falling prey to Grindelwald. Newt, who rejected the exact same request from the Ministry, reluctantly agrees.

Despite the fact that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a messy and unfocused film, it derives its form and momentum around the search for Credence. Several different parties, all with varied intentions, hunt for Credence; some seek to kill him, others want to save him, and Grindelwald wants to use him.

This is the second Fantastic Beasts installment where Credence is essential to the plot while barely appearing in the movie. When he does show up, he does little more than scowl as he deals with his identity crisis. This is, quite frankly, the product of poor writing; if we’re meant to care about Credence as the center point around which this drama is unfolding, wouldn’t it be wise to make him a three dimensional character? Alas, you’ll find no such characterization in Crimes of Grindelwald.

However, The Crimes of Grindelwald is not entirely without merit. There’s no shortage of compelling characters in the film that help make individual scenes interesting, even if they make little sense within the broader context of the story.

The relationship between Jacob and Queenie brings both humor and heart to the story as their intimacy feels more real than most of the movie. The exploration of Newt’s home and all his different monster pets is always an entertaining form of world building.

Newt’s relationships with Leta and Tina help make him a marginally more interesting character, mostly because those characters are wrestling with their own complicated motivations and interesting backstories. It’s not entirely clear why either Leta or Tina are interested and/or in love with Newt, but that’s the least of the movie’s issues.

The relationship between Grindelwald and Dumbledore, although only tangentially established, introduces the most compelling dynamic to the movie that will hopefully pay off in a future movie. This plot may come off strange for unfamiliar viewers, but will undoubtedly carry more weight for avid fans. At least the movie allows Dumbledore to say that he and Grindelwald were “closer than brothers.” That’s likely the closest we will get to the franchise addressing Dumbledore’s sexuality.

Moreover, the use of the titular fantastic beasts is more restrained than in the previous film, but still nicely used. Despite the fact that the beasts only serve as window dressing for the larger story, they add a welcome levity to the story. Lucky for us, the Nifflers make a reappearance.

Unfortunately, any of the elements in The Crimes of Grindelwald that might make for a good, or even passable movie, are obscured by an unnecessarily convoluted plot intent on turning every character, every location, every turn of phrase, into some kind of Easter egg that connects back to something we’ve already seen. From the use of the Lestrange family bloodline to the introduction of Nicolas Flamel, the movie can’t help but float these familiar elements into the narrative no matter how pointless or illogical they may be.

On the other hand, anything new that the film introduces to the audience is explained to death with dense exposition written with the grace of a bull in a china shop. This is disappointing to say the least; there are no shortage of interesting and exciting elements in the Wizarding World, yet these movies can’t seem to find a way to show them off without weighing them down with unwanted narrative exposition.

Grindelwald himself is another baffling element of the story. Putting aside the fact that this entire franchise is moving towards an inevitable and familiar conclusion, the story does little to make him interesting. We’re meant to believe that Grindelwald has enough power and charisma to convince people to join him, but we’re never shown any real evidence of that. This makes him, like so much of the movie, feel more like someone’s idea of a villain than an authentic antagonist.

What’s so deeply confounding about the Fantastic Beasts story, if you want to call it that, is how outright boring it is. In a fictional world this rich with potential for compelling characters and stories, they somehow went and chose the most unimaginative story possible.

When the original Harry Potter arc followed a powerful wizard with the strength to save or destroy the Wizarding World, it felt new and exciting. We’re seeing that same story retread in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Sure the characters are older and the time period is different, but this time, it’s Credence Barebone’s story.

Unfortunately, the franchise doesn’t even have the decency to make Credence the protagonist of his own story. Instead, it chooses to tell this story through Newt Scamander who is never nearly as interesting as the CGI monsters that he keeps as pets.

Ultimately, it feels wrong to even call The Crimes of Grindelwald a movie; it’s a promotional exercise that serves little purpose other than to give Warner Brothers more content to sell to its fans.

‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is now playing in theaters everywhere

Editor’s note: Johnny Depp, who co-stars in this film, has been repeatedly accused of violence. He allegedly beat his ex-wife Amber Heard (read the accusations by Heard and Depp’s former associates). J.K. Rowling responded to the controversy. In July 2018, Depp was accused of punching a crew member on the set of a film in April 2017. In October 2018, Depp responded to the accusations. Why are we telling you this?

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