Review: ‘Crimes of Grindelwald’ is another disappointment

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/3/19 2:00am

Two years ago, I was in the minority when I declared “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” to be less than the sum of its parts. Eddie Redmayne was genuinely fantastic as the unassuming, socially awkward protagonist Newt Scamander, and he continues to shine in the sequel, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Moreover, when the first film embraces the whimsical tone inherent to Scamander’s story, it works. Just as often, though, it gets buried in what I described in an old The Dartmouth review as “dour subplots,” most of them revolving around the terrorist reign of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp. As the title of the sequel might suggest, the film goes full dark, ditching any possible whimsy as fast as possible. It also ditches compelling character motivation, flowing plot structure and just about everything else that once made the “Harry Potter” stories and their subsequent adaptations and spin-offs so beloved.

The film is once again helmed by David Yates, the director behind the last four Potter films and the first “Fantastic Beasts” outing. As with the first entry, Potter creator J.K.Rowling returns to write the screenplay, once again proving that she’s a far better author than screenwriter. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a film essentially composed of sub-plots without a main plot. Conceptually, I think Scamander’s character arc is meant to drive the movie, as he learns that he must pick sides in the inevitable magical war to come against Grindelwald. Conceptually, this is an interesting enough angle, illuminating why opting for neutrality in an ethically-charged conflict can be an irresponsible option despite the best of intentions. Yet Scamander never really evolves from a neutral pacifist to an actively engaged combatant in the battle against Grindelwald; he simply begins the film as one and declares himself the other by the end without much connective tissue in between. Thus, a character arc feels instead like a character leap.

Scamander’s arc — or lack thereof — illuminates another one of the film’s crippling flaws: it lacks any real tension. His transformation into a committed opponent of Grindelwald is all setup for the aforementioned great wizarding war that we’re assured will come … at some point … maybe. The first film actually sets this up well, establishing Grindelwald as a clear threat without playing all its cards too early. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” thus has the perfect opportunity to be the “The Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise by taking the story to dark and psychologically complex places via the aforementioned wizarding war. Instead, the film just feels like filler.

To make up for this lack of excitement, Rowling tries to cram in plot twists and shocking revelations galore. But because we never really get a chance to know the characters, none of these surprises really land. Moreover, basically all of these twists are revealed via fountains of exposition, further illustrating Rowling’s limitations as a screenwriter. One of my favorite chapters in all of the Harry Potter books is when the characters basically stand around and exposit to each other about the origins of the Marauders Map, the relationship between Harry’s father and his godfather and so on. On the written page, the staging of the scene doesn’t really matter. Cinematically, though, it comes across as deadly dull, and there’s good reason director Alfonso Cuarón largely cut that aforementioned chapter in his adaptation of “Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Sadly, Yates feels far more beholden to Rowling’s storytelling style than he ought to. And this might be as good a time as any to acknowledge that Yates was always the wrong choice to helm the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise. For the most part, Yates’s grimmer and more politically charged sensibilities worked well when he was adapting the darker final books of the Potter saga. In the first “Fantastic Beasts,” that sensibility seemed deeply at odds with the eccentric aesthetic that theoretically should have been essential to the film’s identity. One would think that Yates might feel more at home with the darker storyline in “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” yet he now appears to be beyond bored with this world and his approach to it. The filmmaking largely feels like it’s on autopilot, stranded somewhere between competent and lazy.

The same cannot be said for the cast. As I mentioned earlier, Redmayne is still perfect as Newt, and newcomer Zoë Kravitz does her best with the underwritten role of Newt’s old flame, Leta Lestrange. Likewise, Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore is an inspired piece of casting, but he’s given a whole lot of nothing to do. Once again, it’s clear that the franchise is building up to a confrontation between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, so one assumes that Law will eventually be given some juicy material to work with. Just not here.

Then there’s the matter of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald himself. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” was a film plagued with entirely avoidable controversy from the start. The decision to cast Claudia Kim — one of the very few people of color involved with the franchise — as Nagini, the woman who will eventually transform into the pet serpent of Lord Voldemort, was a decidedly questionable choice born out of a very specific sort of white ignorance.

Nevertheless, no filmmaking decision was quite so ill-conceived and quite so avoidable as the choice to retain Depp as Grindelwald after his ex-wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse. In the aftermath of the allegations, Depp should have been fired and recast. Period. No questions asked. But he wasn’t. If one takes the domestic abuse allegations out of the equation and just focuses on the acting, Depp is arguably one of the best things — if not the best thing — in the film. His characterization is soft-spoken, charismatic and surprisingly nuanced. And for the first time in practically a decade, Depp actually seems invested in a performance. But — and this is crucial — one should absolutely not take the domestic abuse allegations out of the equation. The quality of Depp’s performance does not excuse his presence in this film. In fact, the greatest indictment of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is that the best thing about it is also the one thing that absolutely should not be in it. The film is not devoid of all things good. Rather, everything good in it is overshadowed by poor decision making that appears to be motivated far more by the financial incentives of a franchise than any semblance of artistic integrity or creativity.