When I first saw Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald last week, I had some mixed feelings about it. The film had too many characters it was trying to follow and the whole thing felt like more of an in-between film whose sole purpose was to set up the following film instead of something that could stand on its own. Since that first viewing, I’ve read the published screenplay, listened to about two hours of the Audible documentary Makers, Mysteries, and Magic, and seen the film a second time. While I still have the same problems with the film I previously did, I liked it a whole lot more on my second viewing. I think it’s down to the fact that I’ve started to appreciate the film for what it is; it’s not trying to be a stand-alone movie, rather, it’s trying to, essentially, be part 2 of a five-part story. It’s chapter 2 of a five chapter book. The film isn’t really meant to be viewed on its own but in the context of that larger story. The problem that we as critics face is: how do we evaluate a story that is, by nature, not actually completed by the end of the film? I think the best thing to do is to examine what the film does have instead of what it doesn’t. (There will be full spoilers for the film ahead!)
This film’s biggest strength – and its biggest weakness – is its characters. As has always been the case throughout all the entries in the Wizarding World franchise, Rowling’s best work is in how fully formed her characters are. Even those characters who appear on screen for minimal amounts of time feel like they’ve lived full lives prior to their appearance and I don’t doubt for a second that Rowling has likely thought up backstories for all of them. Where this movie runs into problems is featuring so many characters and trying to give them all equal screen time and importance. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is only 134 minutes long, and that’s counting roughly 10 minutes of credits. Frankly, that’s just not enough time to follow as many characters as this movie was trying to follow. It was always going to end up shortchanging some of them. The good thing about this film, when compared to the last film, is that pretty much every character is going after the same thing: Credence. While the last film had way too many characters and too many subplots, this one just has too many characters all going after the same thing. We see too little of characters like Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) to really form any attachment to them, but at least we know what they want and why they want it and that is an improvement over the last film.
On the flip side, the characters we are able to focus a good amount of time on are this film’s best elements. Newt (Eddie Redmayne) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) both get some pretty great, engaging character arcs and watching the two of them grow throughout the film is a genuine joy. I’m especially fond of Queenie’s story in this movie as we see just how desperate she is to live in a world where she can marry Jacob without any repercussions. She starts out the movie having put an enchantment on him in order to convince him to let them get married (he had been being resistant as he didn’t want her to have to give up her life as a witch for him, or to risk jail for him) and by the end of the film, she’s been seduced by Grindelwald’s (Johnny Depp) message and ends up joining him to create the world she’s looking for. It’s such an interesting storyline, and one that feels totally in character for her, and, while I wish we could have had more screentime with Queenie, I felt like the film devoted a good chunk of time to ensuring that her arc worked out. The same rings true for Newt as well. He starts out the film not wanting to choose a side and ends up choosing one by the end of the film (after Leta (Zoe Kravitz) gets killed by Grindelwald and Newt is forced to help comfort his grieving brother, Theseus (Callum Turner). Much of his story ends up revolving around his efforts to win back Tina (Katherine Waterstone) after she mistakenly thinks he’s engaged to Leta due to an error in a news article and so a lot of his arc happens more in the background, but I adore Newt so much and I think that background work on his arc of having to be assertive and choose a side works really well without having all that focus on it. Leta has a really interesting story throughout the film and, while it’s a shame that she appears not to have survived the events of this film, I still really like what they did with her and I thought her backstory ultimately worked.
The biggest problem, character-wise, I have with the film is with Nagini (Claudia Kim) and Credence (Ezra Miller). As I said in my review of the film, the whole movie is essentially about Credence. All the characters are either trying to find him or they’re trying to learn who he is. Including Nagini and Credence, himself. The problem with that is that Credence just doesn’t get enough screen time in the film. It’s pretty clear that a bunch of scenes between him and Nagini were cut from the film which ends up leaving them both high and dry. We have no idea how they met, why they’ve formed a relationship with each other, or really what Nagini’s purpose is in this film. She has a total of five lines and doesn’t do much more than try and protect Credence from various threats. Credence doesn’t do much, either, aside from asking Irma (Danielle Hugues) if she’s his mother, angst over her death, and then have an encounter with Grindelwald that leads him to the Lestrange tomb where he ultimately joins Grindelwald and learns that he’s (purportedly) Aurelius Dumbledore. He has so much importance in the film but features exactly zero character development.
And then there’s the whole thing about him being a Dumbledore. I know that Rowling loves to play these kinds of games where she reveals something huge in one story that ends up not being what it seemed it was in a later story, so I suspect that Credence is not exactly Albus’ brother. Whether he’s just a distantly related relative, Arianna’s obscurial reincarnated in his body, or not at all related to Dumbledore and being lied to by Grindelwald, I don’t know, but I think it’s gonna end up being one of those three options. While Rowling has been playing a bit fast and loose with canon in these films, they’ve mostly been smaller things (like changing when McGonnagal was born) while making Credence a secret Dumbledore sibling seems like a much larger tweak that would really start to mess with stuff from the original Potter books. It’s reveals like that that make this film hard to judge on its own as future installments will end up deciding whether this plot point actually succeeds or fails.
Then we come to the actual plot of this film. As I have said in my previous review, and earlier in this re-review, this film doesn’t really have a huge amount that happens in it. While the massive amount of characters makes it feel like a lot happens, in reality very little happens. Pretty much everyone ends up in Paris, attends Grindelwald’s rally, and return home with new information and new goals for the future. The whole film is one huge long con by Grindelwald. He’s orchestrated the whole thing to ensure that everyone is exactly where he wants them when his rally begins and that’s a really interesting way to structure a film. All the characters ended up in the Lestrange mausoleum by their own urgency, but that urgency was being manipulated from the shadows by Grindelwald so that he could unleash his trap to get these powerful wizards to either join him or die. Naturally, it backfired a bit because Grindelwald underestimates things he finds simple (which is how the Niffler was able to steal the vial that contained Grindelwald’s blood pact with Dumbledore). This film really reminds me a lot of Half-Blood Prince in that both stories existed, primarily, to set up the events of the following story. Half-Blood Prince was dedicated to explaining Voldemort’s backstory and introducing the concept of Horcruxes while Crimes of Grindelwald is dedicated to showing us how Grindelwald began to rise to power and forcing our characters to figure out just which side of the battle they are on. It’s the kind of story that works really well as a book or as a season of a TV show but doesn’t quite work as a movie.
But is this really a bad thing? Rowling wasn’t setting out to make this a stand-alone story. It wasn’t designed to have any real definitive ending. She set out to make sure this movie laid all the groundwork for the rest of the Fantastic Beasts series. We now know that Dumbledore needs to break the blood pact so he can ultimately fight Grindelwald. We know that Credence is a Dumbledore, or at least thinks he is, and Grindelwald is using him to fight against Albus. We have Queenie aligned with Grindelwald, which is going to make life very tough for Newt, Tina, and Jacob as they continue to work with Albus and the Ministry to take down Grindelwald. We have Nagini introduced in the story and she will likely be trying to reach out to Credence and help lure him away from Grindelwald and back to the good side while continuing to struggle with her blood curse. So many plot elements have been set up for the next installment that, hopefully, we’ll be able to really get into the action now. The first Fantastic Beasts was dedicated to introducing us to Newt, Tina, Jacob, Queenie, and Creedence while Crimes of Grindelwald was dedicated to introducing us to the wider cast who will be fighting Grindelwald as the films go on.
And the thing is, I kind of dig that. It’s fairly unique for a film to so blatantly be setting up its sequel. This kind of long-form storytelling isn’t something we see in films much; it’s primarily relegated to TV and novels. The closest comparison I can make to what Rowling seems to be doing with these Wizarding World films is what the Marvel Cinematic Universe does. Every film in that universe is like a new episode of a very long-running TV series. Sure, each film usually revolves around a different character, but they’re also laying the groundwork for future films (particularly how all the Marvel movies laid the groundwork for Infinity War) and that kind of storytelling has been working for Marvel. Sure, they were a bit more subtle with how they were setting up their sequels, but those movies introduced this idea of long-form storytelling in films and it seems that Rowling is just taking it to the next level and I really dig it. I still think that the Fantastic Beasts films might be better serves as 8-hour seasons of a five-season TV show, allowing Rowling plenty of room to write in as many characters as she wants while having plenty of time to actually explore those characters and their arcs on screen, but I do like just how audacious these films are. We’re not used to a movie series genuinely trying to tell one long story over the course of five films. We’re just used to sequels that build upon the last film but still have their own complete story. Fantastic Beasts is really trying to be one long, five-chapter story told across five films and, for better or worse, The Crimes of Grindelwald is chapter two of that story.
All in all, I definitely dig The Crimes of Grindelwald. Yes, there are problems, primarily that there are too many characters for one two-hour film to follow and so the audience is left wanting to know more about those characters, but that’s always been the case with the Wizard World stories. We always want to know more about Rowling’s world. I liked so much of what happens in this film. I loved a lot of the plot developments, I loved a lot of the character arcs, I love the actors and the sets and the costumes and the music, and I just love this world in general. I really dig the direction the story is going and I’m willing to have an open mind and see how some of the stuff I’m a bit more hesitant about play out before passing judgment on it. This film is really difficult to view outside of the context of its larger, five-part story, and I’d argue that it shouldn’t be viewed outside of that context. It’s not meant to be a stand-alone film nor is it meant to be what we’ve grown used to sequels being. It’s trying to be the second chapter of a five-chapter story being told over five films. It’s the second part of an interesting experiment in long-form storytelling in cinema. And, as the second chapter of a story, it’s everything a second chapter should be. It challenges the characters and moves them forward from where they were in the first chapter, it deepens our understanding of the story while introducing new elements to keep us on our toes, and it sets up the plotline for the rest of the series. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a good standalone movie, but it’s a very good second part of the five-part story it’s trying to tell. Time will tell just how good it is, but we’ll have to wait to see how the future films pay off the events that occurred within this one.
4 out of 5 wands, increased from the previous score of 3.5 out of 5.