The crimes of The Crimes Of Grindelwald

The narrative crimes, that is. Of the movie.

I have this odd tendency to get swept up in pop cultural "moments" in a way that's divorced from my actual appreciation for the pop cultural work in question. I can't resist clicking on Marvel theory clickbait articles despite not really giving a shit about the actual movies. I'm fervently awaiting the ending of Game of Thrones even though I've spent the last few seasons mostly being annoyed or uninterested in it. I went along with the pre-Force Awakens hype train even though I was never a fan of the original movies.

So a few years ago, when Warner Bros cleared some space in their bank account and said "Harry Potter is back , y'all!", I couldn't resist.

"Back" might be a strange word to use, since the Harry Potter franchise never really went away. The publication of the last book didn't signal a departure from mainstream consciousness since by that point the phenomenon was only tangentially dependant on the actual novels, and even the last movie didn't lead to an appreciable ebb in Pottermania. Franchises on the decline don't generally get expensive, lavish theme parks based on them (Avatar Land being the sole and extremely confusing exception). 

But at the same time, there was a solid eight years or so where JK Rowling didn't directly have a hand in creating anything and there was no main-line Harry Potter stories coming out in any format. So the announcement of a new movie franchise penned by J-Ro herself and acting as the tip of the spear for  a whole galaxy of new products was a signal that the franchise was, if not returning then ramping up for a second wind.

"Neato!" Said I, ears pricking with interest. "New Harry Potter stories divorced completely from Hogwarts and, you know, Harry Potter. I wonder if anything interesting could come out of this?"

And it sort of did! I liked the first Fantastic Beasts quite a bit. If you don't have time to read the review, I thought it was a fun romp, but I was wary about the idea of the fledgling franchise becoming a full-tilt prequel series, as it felt like it would get messy and awkward to try and turn a story about a bumbling zoologist into this epic adventure story setting the groundwork for the main series. It seemed like that could be a thing that would go wrong.

Well, it did indeed go wrong. The Crimes of Grindelwald is bad, in more or less the exact ways I thought it was going to be.

The setup is that it's six months after the events of the first Fantastic Beasts and Grindelwald, the guy who was the big bad evil wizard before Voldemort was the big bad evil wizard, is being transported to England to stand trial for killing people or whatever. He escapes en route and travels to Paris to track down Credence Barebone, the Obscurious (Obscurial?) who got blown up at the end of the last movie but who is somehow still alive. A rumour is doing the rounds that Credence is the last surviving male heir of a powerful pure-blood wizard family, and Grindelwald suspects (correctly) that he's in France to track down his biological mother.

Meanwhile, the British wizards are also looking for Credence, and for some reason that's never adequately explained they try to recruit Newt Scamander for the job. He says no because the Ministry of Magic is mean, but wait! Young Dumbledore and his bizarre Irish accent are also trying to find Credence, and they also think Newt is the man for the job for some reason. So Newt teams up with a bunch of other characters from the first movie who got perfectly good send-offs and traipses off to Paris to mumble his way through the mystery.

Also, Voldemort's snake is in this. She's a Korean woman who got cursed to be a snake.  

That's Nagini I'm talking about. Voldemort's snake. The one who eats a bunch of people and kills at least one major character. And bites Ron's dad, I think? The giant snake who bites Ron's dad is in this and she's actually a Korean shapeshifter. 

Yeah, it's not very good. I'm going to have to resort to the most evolved form of blog post and write a list to explain why.

Part 1: Let's make everything boring 

One thing that's always baffled me about the Harry Potter movies is how eager they were to suck all the colour and fun out of the books and make them as "gritty" and serious as possible. You can see this really clearly in the Warner Bros logos, which you would expect to gradually get darker with each installment at the same rate as the books, but instead it went like this: 


I thought a new film franchise might be a chance to reset the grimdark and make the whole thing a bit more light-hearted (you know, like you'd expect for a movie series based on books for ten year olds)  but no, the Warner logo comes up at the start of The Crimes of Grindelwhale and it's all ominous choir singing and sinister shadows, to let you know that the story you're about to witness is as serious, if not more so, than Schindler's List . 

Then the first scene is in a dank, grim wizard prison in New York, and then Grindelwald murders a bunch of people, then Newt goes to the Ministry of Magic and talks to a bunch of middle aged men in suits about getting his wizard passport back, then Grindelwald and his goons kill even more people including a toddler and it's less than twenty minutes in and I already want to go watch something fun and uplifting like Requiem For A Dream .

I'm not saying that all of this offends me or that I think it will damage the delicate psyches of the kids who go to see the movie. My problem is that it's boring. The original books had this running thing where the Ministry of Magic is intentionally as stodgy as possible and there's sub-committees on cauldron thickness or whatever; it was funny because, like, they're wizards but also it's what a kid assumes being an adult is like. But at some point it stopped being a joke and just became an accepted element of the setting that people with names like Newt Scamander and Booplebliff Wumpersnaff talk and act like middle managers at the regional headquarters for a company that imports agricultural equipment.

Didn't wizards in the books wear robes? Why don't they wear robes anywhere? Why is official wizard attire just, like, a suit? 

Part 2: Three movies in one 

The Grimes of Crindelwald's biggest  flaw is exactly what I thought it would be: that it feels like three different stories smashed awkwardly together. You've got the "Fantastic Beasts" part, you've got the Harry Potter prequel part, and you've got the part that's trying to just be a brand new story in the Wizarding World. Any one of these could have been good on their own, as stand-alone films, but trying to combine them went wrong in so many ways that I feel like I need to talk about them as though they're individual stories.

In fact, I'm going to do that. 

Part 2a: The Fantastic Beasts part  

Back in my review of the first Fantastic Beasts, I said that I didn't understand why Newt Scamander was being positioned as the protagonist of this new five-movie franchise when even by the end of the first installment, the focus was moving away from the titular beasts and into a prequel story about Grindelwald. I continued to reiterate in my trailer reaction posts that keeping the "Fantastic Beasts" moniker was an odd move given this shift in focus.

And in execution, it's exactly as strange as I thought it would be. There is literally no reason why Newt should be the protagonist of this movie. We never get an explanation for why the Ministry thinks he's uniquely suited to hunting down Credence, and the only reason Dumbledore and his fake Irish accent give for recruiting him is that they know Newt will try to capture Credence alive instead of killing him. But was there really no one else they could find for the job? Was Newt seriously the best person to send on a dangerous, highly covert mission?

The movie finds an excuse for there to be several fantastic beasts running around Paris, but the reason for this has nothing at all to do with Newt, and the scenes where he recaptures them are extremely rushed and tacked on, almost like they were post-hoc additions to the script added solely to justify the continued use of the Fantastic Beasts name. Which they almost certainly were. 

As mentioned, the entire main cast of the first movie return, which is an extremely mixed bag. I was solidly against Queenie and what's his name returning since they got a perfectly solid ending last time around; the movie does actually come up with a fairly compelling story for them, but this a) just sort of sits on the sidelines for most of the movie and b) leads to possibly the worst scene in any Hollywood movie in the last decade, about which more later. 

 Part 2b: The Harry Potter prequel part

A prequel story about how Dumbledore and his accent defeated Grindelwald isn't, necessarily, a bad idea. This is a big part of the Harry Potter Lore, and it ended up being fairly integral to the plot of the last book...sort of, kind of. It's a topic you could wring some good storytelling out of.

But it's also a topic that could have formed the basis for precisely one movie, not five. We already got the basics of what went down in the books: Grindelwald and Dumbledore and Dumbledore's accent formed a wizard-fascist fan club in school, Dumbledore and his accent got disillusioned and quit, there was something about Dumbledore's sister that I don't really remember, Grindelwald rose to power and terrorized the magical world, Dumbledore and his accent dragged their feet for a while because they were still in love with Grindelwald, eventually they got over it and defeated him, the end.

It's a simple, straight-forward plot about hubris and tragedy and unrequited love. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll only need the edge of your seat.  

But no, instead they're stretching this out over five fucking movies, and that slower pace gives you time to realize the inherent flaws in the premise, such as that Grindelwald is basically the exact same character as Voldemort.

No, really. He has the exact same motivation and goal. At first it looks like he's taking a different approach since he's working on genuinely convincing wizards to join his cause through charisma instead of being a mass murderer with a creepy snake face who kills anyone who doesn't join him, but then later he literally says "join me or die" and it's just the exact same deal. 

I guess I'll give the movie credit for portraying his minions as being true believers to the cause. The Death Eaters or whatever they were called were supposedly driven by a belief in wizard fascism, but more often than not they seemed to just get a kick out of being evil and abandoned Voldemort and his mission at the first opportunity. You get the feeling that the Grindelclub are loyal to the ideology first and foremost, and if Grindelwald suddenly had a wizard aneurysm and keeled over dead they'd pick a new leader and keep going. 

But from a narrative standpoint, what is the purpose of spending so much time on all of this? As far as I can remember, there's never any suggestion that Voldemort was directly inspired by Grindelwald or that if Grindwald's shenanigans hadn't happened, Voldemort wouldn't have tried to take over the wizarding world. It seemed more like they were both independantly influenced by a pre-existing extremist ideology; that there were other Grindelwalds before and will likely be more afterwards, and Voldemort was just exceptionally bad news because he was super Evil for no reason, like all of JK Rowling's villains. As well as being bad storytelling, this handling of Grindelwald as a character also sails into muddy thematic waters, but we'll talk about that later. 

Dumbledore and his accent are the biggest wasted story element in the prequel part of the movie. I said in another post that actually having him on-screen felt like a mis-step since the telling of this story in the mainline books made it seem like he spent Grindelwald's entire rise to power just hanging around and going "No I cannot fight him because I still love him abloo bloo!" and...yeah, that's more or less how it goes here. People ask why Dumbledore can't just kill Grindelwald, since he appears to be eminently capable of doing so more or less any time he wants, and Dumbledore and his accent go "No! I--I cannot!" 

 (Okay, the movie does conjure up a magical thing-a-majig to make it so that Dumblefore and Grindelwald are literally incapable of fighting each other, but it's an incredibly obvious band-aid added solely to stretch the story out to three more installments).

Part   2c: The brand new Harry Potter story

And then we come to Crimes of Grendelwalmart's final purpose, which is to further open new horizons of JK Rowling's Wizarding World (trademark) and tell brand new, never before seen stories in the Harry Potter universe!

I had a longer spiel about all of this planned out, but I've got a headache so let's cut right to the chase: the only good part of this movie is a brief flashback to Newt's time at Hogwarts. It operates and feels basically identical to the OG Potter books, except that it finally introduces a sympathetic Slytherin character (I got embarassingly excited about this for some reason).

Let me repeat that: the only good part of this movie is the bit that ditches the new locations and plots and creatures and just goes back to the well one more time. 

So between this movie, the previous movie, the play and the seventh book, I think we can draw some pretty firm conclusions. The first is that JK Rowling is just straight up not good at writing fantasy adventure stories. She's good at boarding school stories and mystery stories, which the first six Harry Potter books were far more than they were fantasy. Remove that framework, and she seems to struggle mightily to construct a plot that isn't either bafflingly convoluted or just nonsensical.

The second, and related, conclusion we can draw is that this was always only a series about Hogwarts. The series' fans--and maybe even its creator--only ever cared about that specific setting and the stories that took place in it, not the "wizarding world" that these new movies are trying to establish. The world-building that extended beyond the borders of Hogwarts was just scaffolding; Diagon Alley was the place where the kids bought their school supplies, the goblin bank was where Harry's inheritance that explained how he could afford to go to school was kept, the Ministry only existed to interfere with Hogwarts...this isn't a world. It's a single iconic location with a handful of ancillary bits and pieces thrown in.

Part 3: The Plot  

That's right, we've only scratched the surface.

The three seperate movies I've described above have their own individual problems, but things really start to get messy when you combine them together. Crimes of Grumbleworld is simultaneously overstuffed--like way, way overstuffed--and also only feels like half a movie. Too much is going on in the individual components, but the over-arching narrative just stops with a bunch of characters shuffling around on the chessboard without resolving anything.

Taken as a whole, it's difficult to say what the movie is even about, or who the protagonist is meant to be. Newt doesn't have any personal stakes in the action of the plot, apart from the anciliary presence of his secondary school crush. Dumbledore seems like a more logical choice of protagonist, except he can't just go and be the main character because we already know that when he did that, he defeated Grindelwald and the story ended. With three movies to go in this series, that end-point needs to be artificially delayed somehow.

Some individual story components feel like they could have been enjoyable if they had been divorced from the tumerous mass of the rest of the plot. Like I said earlier, I liked Queenie and Jacob's new dynamic; the fact that they're not allowed to marry in wizarding America is a neat way to avoid their story having a simple happy ending without breaking them up per se. But this also leads to a scene that nearly made me stop watching, where Queenie--who's lured Jacob to London with an enchantment--rhapsodizes about how much more tolerant the UK is, since people can marry whoever they want with no hassle from the authorities.

Obviously, this is commenting on the 1930s-relevant prohibitions against miscegenation in america, or contemporary anti-gay marriage sentiment, or both. Either way, it's being delivered through the lens of two white, straight people. 

Bloggers Note:  This post was originally meant to be even longer, but I currently lack the energy to finish it DOOTLE DOOT INSERT COMPELLING COMMENTARY HERE

The overall impression I get from this movie is of a franchise drifting slowly away from whatever appeal it once had. It's becoming increasingly clear that Harry Potter's fans, and maybe even his creator, never really had much interest in the wider "wizarding world" that these new movies are trying to create. JK Rowling and everyone still hanging on every word that comes out of her pen would be better served by either returning to those halcyon school days, or just letting them fade into memory.