While the first “Fantastic Beasts” film set up the world of Newt Scamander, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” delves into the deeper plot of the new tale J.K. Rowling is telling in her Wizarding World. It’s a double-edged sword however as “Grindelwald” is certainly more dramatic than its lighthearted predecessor, but there is so much going on that it muddles the emotional impact of its narrative.
The film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to not get involved in the burgeoning conflict between Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). His friends Queenie (Alison Sudol), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston) are back as well as newcomes like his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), and old flame, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). Grindelwald moves to create an army of followers in Paris, leading Newt into danger.
The casting in all of the Potter films has always been great and that streak continues with “Grindelwald.” Jude Law glides into the role of Dumbledore with a twinkle in his eye that ties him to Michael Gambon and Richard Harris. And Johnny Depp refrains from being a caricature of himself and becomes an enticing, malicious dark wizard. In contrast with Voldemort who basically looks and sounds evil, Depp as Grindelwald is a charismatic leader with legitimate grievances that make sense. How such monsters gain power is an interesting parallel to the world of the past and present.
The world is still brilliant and magical. Wands, spells, beasts, riddles. A circus in Paris, the Lestrange cemetery, Nicholas Flamel’s house and, of course, Hogwarts. It’s always a treat to be back in the Wizarding World.
The problem is that “Grindelwald” is so cluttered. There are so many characters and so much going on that the whole plot feels muddled. You have Grindelwald gathering followers and tracking Creedence, Dumbledore fighting with the Ministry and battling his inner demons, Jacob and Queenie working on their relationship, Creedence trying to find his mother with Nagini, Leta Lestrange confronting her feelings and her past, Theseus Scamander trying to control his brother and Tina trying to find Creedence and prove herself as an Auror. Whew.
Oh, yeah, and there’s Newt Scamander, the supposed protagonist of this saga. He’s often on the sidelines however, much like poor Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” trilogy. Your central character needs to drive the action. To tie him into the plot, it would make sense for him to be in direct conflict with Grindelwald. Perhaps Grindelwald is searching for a creature in Newt’s case that would aid him in his war, and Newt is on the run. He’s hiding in Paris, and we are introduced to the magical world in France. He becomes involved in a sideplot that shows how the wizarding governments are failing the magical community, illustrating the power of Grindelwald’s argument. As it is, Newt is just kind of there, leaving us wanting.
The story feels most like a Potter film at the climax, a dramatic moment of choice that tests the characters and elevates an otherwise disjointed film. Perhaps that’s portending to a more involving story soon to come, with a motivated Newt working to stop Grindelwald. After kind of sleep walking through two films, it’s what the series truly needs.