Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2019)
For the second chapter in a Harry Potter prequel franchise that started in 2016, we head to 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Set in the 1920s, evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) spearheads a movement to lead the magic-imbued to rule the world.
Though Grindelwald amasses a growing contingent of followers, others oppose his fascistic efforts. Among them, quirky wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) helps fight back against Grindelwald, and he also works to discover the secret behind the mysterious orphan Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
If you read my notes about 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you’ll see that I mentioned I never invested too much in JK Rowling’s “Wizarding World”. While I liked the Potter movies, I couldn’t count myself as a huge fan.
Over the subsequent two years between Beasts movies, that attitude changed. On 4K UHD, I watched all eight Potter movies in close succession and found myself more engrossed in them. Indeed, this experience led me to finally read the books, an experience that brought me deeper into the Potter mythos.
While I’ll never be a superfan, these developments took me toward Crimes with more enthusiasm than otherwise would’ve occurred. No, I didn’t much like Beasts, but given my newfound interest in Rowling’s universe, I felt optimistic the sequel would work better for me.
Alas, this didn’t occur. Like Beasts, Crimes came with a mix of flaws and became a spotty experience with only occasional positives.
Indeed, Crimes shows virtually all the same pros and cons as the prior film. The two provide such similar positives and negatives that I became tempted to simply cut and paste much of my Beasts review.
I didn’t, but I’m not sure what new I can say in terms of Crimes. Like the first film, the sequel’s story seems like a mess, as it jumps from characters/narrative elements with little logic or clarity.
This means we spend time with roles we barely know, and the movie fails to explain them well. We receive mediocre exploration of the different participants, and the film tends to lose track of them too often.
Nominally Newt acts as the lead, but a lot of Crimes leaves him in a passive part. Granted, that held true of Harry during the early movies in that franchise, but at least we got a story that revolved around Potter, so even when he didn’t have much to do, he stayed the focal point.
That doesn’t occur for Beasts, and Newt often feels like an afterthought. Honestly, one could easily create a version of Crimes that omits Newt entirely, as he stays superfluous enough that the plot could work without him.
Not that the other roles pick up the slack, as they seem underdrawn and often toothless as well. Like the first movie, the narrative does become more engrossing during the third act, but until that point, it tends to feel aimless and disjointed.
I didn’t like Redmayne in Beasts, and he remains annoying in Crimes. Truthfully, the more I see of Redmayne, the less I like him, as he seems like an actor who lacks an intuitive side.
As Newt, Redmayne does little more than deliver a collection of quirks and character traits. He never makes Newt a convincing person, as Redmayne’s emphasis on self-conscious oddness becomes a distraction.
Like I mentioned, Crimes does work better in the third act, mainly because it focuses more on high-stakes action. It also ties together various loose ends and explains all the confusing story points that cropped up in the prior two acts.
Because of this, the movie’s ending becomes fairly dramatic, and it points toward the third chapter in an exciting enough way to create anticipation for the next film. That’s fine, but I wish Crimes explained story/character beats better in its earlier moments and we didn’t need the exposition-heavy final one-third.
Like Beasts, Rowling wrote the screenplay based on her own original ideas, as unlike the Potter films, there are no novels to adapt. Rowling never wrote a script prior to Beasts, and I can’t help but think that these movies would be better if a professional screenwriter took the reins.
Rowling did a great job with the Potter books, so I know she boasts talent as a novelist. This doesn’t mean she can shift smoothly into screenwriter mode, though, and I suspect some with more direct experience in that realm would’ve conveyed the material in a superior cinematic manner.
On the other hand, Crimes features a director with too much experience, as it represents David Yates’ sixth entry in the Rowling universe. I liked the work Yates did with the final four Potter films, but I feel that a new director would’ve brought a fresh viewpoint to the Beasts series that Yates lacks.
I get why the studio wanted to keep Yates, though, as his Potter films made tons of money. Beasts didn’t earn a dazzling take in the US, as its $233 million gross placed below all eight Potter movies, but it ended up with a worldwide total of $814 million.
Crimes fared much less well, as it made about 33 percent less in the US. Again, international ticket sales helped redeem it, but even there, it declined significantly.
With a worldwide take of $653 million, Crimes marked a 20 percent total fall from Beasts. Due to a massive $200 million budget, it barely squeaked by with a profit.
Would a different director prompt higher sales? Perhaps, perhaps not, but creatively, I think the films would work better with a new director.
Given that Yates remains slated to direct the remaining three movies in the series, I guess we’ll never see what someone else can do with the “Wizarding World”. I maintain hope the next chapters will fare better than the first two, and Crimes delivers an erratic experience with too many inconsistencies to become a winner.