“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a beautiful movie, its sweeping shots interwoven with some of creator J.K. Rowling’s most creative and disquieting ideas. It’s also—sad to say—a profoundly confused film that struggles to develop its characters and themes. Like much of Rowling’s post-“Potter” work, it’s a project of wildly varying quality.
As things open, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaks out of confinement. He immediately starts soliciting others to join his campaign for wizard dominance of both magical and Muggle worlds alike. (Sound familiar? We’ll get to that). Meanwhile, our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s been barred from international travel after the cataclysmic events of 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” is struggling to navigate the morass of magical bureaucracy. He doesn’t have much time to waste: as a younger Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) promptly advises Newt, Grindelwald’s close to ensnaring untrained dark-magic-boy Credence (Ezra Miller), a young sorcerer with the power to make Grindelwald’s dystopian dreams a reality. (You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d died in the last movie. I too was baffled by his reappearance, which smacks of an ad-hoc retcon.) Along the way, we also catch up with lovable Muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), his pretty witch girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), and her Auror sister Tina (Katherine Waterston).
That sounds like a lot of moving pieces—and it is—but if one looks closely, they’re all pretty much the same as last time. Credence is still out breaking things with uncontrolled bursts of dark energy, villainous people are trying to control him, and quirky little creatures are still swarming around Newt. But to Rowling’s credit (and that of director David Yates), things do evolve further here. In particular, there are three distinct moments in “Crimes” that really pack a punch.
Early on, we learn that the character Nagini (Claudia Kim)—last seen as Lord Voldemort’s pet snake in the original series—was originally a human “Maledictus” cursed to slowly transform over time into a monstrous creature. In “Crimes,” she doesn’t have much to do other than serve as Credence’s vaguely defined love interest. That’s a shame, to be sure, but the hook of a genuinely tragic and compelling story is here nonetheless. What would it be like, we wonder, to experience growing up, first loves, and the wonder of life with such a horrible shadow hanging over one’s head? Heck, I’d watch an entire movie based on this premise—especially one set in Rowling’s Potterverse.
That’s not all. As the film progresses, we learn of a family tragedy involving Newt’s love interest Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) that positively seethes with a haunting sense of generational guilt. And in the film’s climactic moments, when Grindelwald makes his pitch for wizard hegemony to a rally of assembled onlookers, the story abruptly lurches in a dramatically different direction than I expected—one that really works.
“Crimes” is set in 1927, not long after the horrors of World War I. Capitalizing on that history, Grindelwald displays to the massed wizards a series of premonitions depicting World War II’s apocalyptic violence—from the ruins of Stalingrad to the death camps of the Holocaust to the flames of Hiroshima. Wizard rule, he warns them, is the only way to avert such a cataclysm.
Sure, it’s a variant of the “would you kill baby Hitler?” question, but in this context it makes perfect sense. Fortune-telling and prophecy have been core elements of the Potter saga since the start! And on reflection, it’s not at all clear what the “right choice” might be in such a scenario. If you knew that supporting a global monarchy—abandoning the promise of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations—would prevent millions of lives from being lost in World War II, would you back such a regime? Especially if you knew, with metaphysical certainty, that World War II would occur otherwise?
Because this is such a fruitful chain of ideas, it’s endlessly infuriating to me that Rowling and Yates squander the brilliance of their setup. Not for a moment do we doubt that Grindelwald is using his WWII vision solely as a ploy to secure his own power. But would it be so hard, one wonders, to make Grindelwald a more complex character than Lord Voldemort? Why not make Grindelwald believe his own ideas—be someone truly sold out to his own sense of messianic destiny? Why not allow him to believe that he, and only he, can stop the coming doomsday? But alas, we’re left instead with a cartoonishly evil supervillain utterly devoid of nuance or personality.
Even if “Crimes” feels like a long string of missed opportunities, it’s certainly not unwatchable. There’s visual pizzazz to spare, and the four characters at the film’s heart—Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie—are still some of the more interesting protagonists in big-budget blockbusters today. There’s no stereotypically “normal” hero or heroine among them: Newt almost certainly experiences some sort of personality disorder, Tina actually acts like a sober-minded adult rather than a stereotypical action-waif, Jacob has no wizarding powers to speak of, and Queenie is frighteningly impetuous. (For what it’s worth, there are probably a slew of think pieces incoming on Queenie and the problem of “white feminism.” Bet on it.) Simply watching them interact is half the joy of the whole thing.
So on the whole, is it worth watching? For longtime Potter fans, probably—even if “Crimes” lacks much of its predecessor’s charm, there’s nothing here as awful as the much-maligned “Cursed Child.” That’s certainly something to celebrate.
One can only imagine, though, the film it could’ve been. That, however, would require taking some risks—which “Crimes” seems to fear more than Grindelwald himself.