Crime pays for Grindelwald…
J.K. Rowling’s whimsical Wizarding World series becomes a bit larger and more fleshed out in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. This richly layered story is brimming with colorful new creatures, stunning visual effects, and enough intriguing storylines to fuel the final three entries.
Rowling’s screenwriting success here is bolstered by her continued collaboration with David Yates – director of six Potterverse films – whose skill behind the camera brings her words to life with a distinct visual flair.
Set in the late 1920s, shortly after the events of the previous film, The Crimes of Grindelwald gets off to roaring start with a thrilling rain-soaked aerial chase through the New York City skyline. The action-packed scene is heightened by a foreboding thunderstorm and creepy Thestrals soaring through the air.
Johnny Depp is instantly captivating as the titular villain and damn creepy, too, complete with sunken cheeks, a ghostly complexion, and haunting mismatched eyes. It’s no easy task being the new villain on the Harry Potter block, especially after Ralph Fiennes so memorably nailed his role as Lord Voldemort. But instead of going for the familiar, over-the-top Jack Sparrow-theatrics, the thrice Oscar-nominated actor gives a subdued performance that, in many ways, outshines any role he’s had in recent memory. Sure, he’s the quintessential bad guy here, but Rowling smartly gives him some much-needed moral ambiguity which makes Grindelwald a fascinating character to follow.
Johnny Depp is instantly captivating as the titular villain and damn creepy, too…
His emotional depth is enhanced by complementary performances from some welcomed new additions to the cast – most notably Jude Law as a slightly less gray-haired Albus Dumbledore. The powerful wizards share a bond that helps humanize Grindelwald’s hostile disposition, and the fact that Dumbledore had some affection for him in the past helps to prevent Depp’s character from becoming another mustache-twirling magical psychopath.
In typical Jude Law fashion, his performance is full of charm and even a nice bit of humor whenever he’s having a chat with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). However, as charismatic as Law is, he doesn’t add anything unique to the legendary wizard’s legacy we hadn’t seen from the late Richard Harris and Michael Gambon’s portrayals in the Harry Potter movies. At the same time, perhaps due to in part to our familiarity with the actor, it never feels like he’s embodying that established Dumbledore persona. Especially when Depp is able to impressively disappear into his portrayal of Grindelwald while being as big a movie star as they come, it’s quite a contrast.
The Crimes of Grindelwald also sees the return of New York City’s magical saviors: Newt, Tina (Katherine Waterston), Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol). Jacob and Queenie’s romantic antics offer a nice comedic respite from Grindelwald’s dastardly deeds, while Tina and Newt’s awkward “will they/won’t they” flirtations are delightful.
The compelling drama here is over whether Newt will join the fight against Grindelwald or remain on the sidelines with his pets. Grindelwald’s name may be in the title, but Newt is equally important since he’s the one who’s been given the task to defeat the evil wizard. Dumbledore says he admires Newt because he does not seek power but instead, “simply asks, is a thing right?” It’s a subtle description of Newt, but a powerful one. Unlike Dumbledore, Harry, or even Luke Skywalker, Newt – as far as we know – doesn’t hail from some great family or have a destiny that was foretold in an ancient prophecy; his superpower is simply his moral compass. Redmayne portrays his character’s inner turmoil well, easily capturing Newt’s boyish delight whenever he’s around one of his magical creatures and looking melancholy and full of dread when dealing with less pleasant matters like death and war.
The rest of the supporting cast ranges from good to forgettable, with many of them being used as throwaway plot devices. An exception is Zoe Kravitz as Leta Lestrange, who effectively plays her character with an air of mystery that makes her unpredictable. Rowling’s script leaves enough vagueness there to keep me questioning which side of the war Leta will end up on.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ezra Miller’s return as Credence Barebone is disappointing. The powerful Obscurial is all brooding and sadness, and not much else. Credence needed more development after the first film, especially since he’s the MacGuffin at the center of this movie, and he doesn’t get it. From a story perspective, his emotional state makes sense – the kid is desperately searching for his real family after the woman who raised him treated him like garbage – so he has every right to brood, but it doesn’t suit Miller well. He’s proven himself to be an expressive actor in films like Justice League and Trainwreck. This time around, however, Miller is harkening back to his indie movie days (e.g. We Need to Talk About Kevin), and while he’s more than capable of pulling off the doom-and-gloom look a more nuanced side of Credence is needed going forward.
Accompanying Credence on much of his journey is Nagini (Claudia Kim), but while her appearance may have been highly anticipated, she feels tacked on and unnecessary apart from her connection to Voldemort. However, there are some cool human-to-snake transformations, further showcasing how far visual effects have come since The Deathly Hallows Part 2 in 2011.