It’s a crime to cast Jude Law and Mads Mikkelsen as former lovers and not bless us with a single schmaltzy flashback. Surely Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts author J.K. Rowling could’ve thrown in a tasteful sex scene or two, now that she’s working with adult characters rather than blushing teens.
Alas, 2018’s Crimes of Grindelwald don’t stack up at all to the cinematic felonies of Rowling, director David Yates, and Warner Bros’ insistence on drawing this prequel franchise out to an interminable five films. We are only just halfway through what began as a fresh romp through 1920s wizardry through the eyes of soft boi magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), but then quickly wimped out and leant on familiar characters for fans to gasp at and theorize about.
By now, Newt is barely a protagonist, most of his dialogue just whispered at Jude Law’s Dumbledore in a Droopy Dog voice that comes and goes. Law does a wonderful job emphasising his R’s in an impression of Michael Gambon’s elderly Dumbledore—but it does all beg the question as to when Dumbledore stopped wearing period-appropriate suits and ties and was like, “fuck it I’m going to dress like Merlin now.”
Embarrassingly, I still can’t parse quite what the titular “Secrets of Dumbledore” are, having sat through this overlong, conflict-free, and anticlimactic instalment. Any of the saucy Dumbledore family drama was already expounded upon in Deathly Hallows, so I assume the “secrets” are the elements of the film’s election-rigging plot that Dumbledore keeps to himself like a heist boss not wanting his underlings to spoil the scheme by knowing too much.
In 1930s Europe, Muggle-hating fascist Grindelwald is forgiven of his jail time and uplifted as a bold new third party voting option, campaigning for a new Wizarding World Order. The film sure ain’t subtle in making Grindelwald a magical analogue to Muggle genocidal dictators of the same time period, but what’s odd is that in the last film Newt, Dumbledore, and their whole heroic gang were trying to stop the baddies from intervening in the real historicalHolocaust.
It feels like a panicked backpedal, the same kind of representational retconning that encouraged fierce queer rights advocate J.K. Rowling to hurriedly make Dumbledore gay in the first place. In a film that fanboy critics are laughably celebrating as “the first mainstream LGBT romance Hollywood has made“, we don’t get a single romantic moment, and there’s certainly never going to be any “T” involved in the franchise so long as Rowling maintains clumsy control of each film’s script. It’s all pointless, and it’s not even consistent with the pointlessness of the last two films.
Mads Mikkelsen mostly phones in the role he inherited via Johnny-Depp-infused Polyjuice Potion, sleepwalking us through a ridiculous plot to necromance a dik-dik-esque Fantastic Beast that can legally decide the outcome of government elections. Kind of like if the FIFA World Cup winner was chosen, rather than just predicted, by Paul the Octopus. Mads has a gaggle of identical-looking evil women to menace the good guys by his side, plus Ezra Miller playing the same pissy emo character who’s certainly in these things to court a niche demographic of sensitive, Snape-shipping, Wattpad-thumping fans.
It’s up to Newt, his cop jock brother Theseus (Callum Turner), token No-Maj friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Charms teacher ally Lally (Jessica Williams) to…do something about it. As a lowly Muggle I’m sure I missed some pivotal info on the reason for act one and two’s sidequests, but I can tell you that I almost felt like sobbing upon hearing, past the movie’s halfway point, that all the gang’s meaningless efforts were in fact “making things much worse”. What the hell have you people been doing?! Getting arrested by Nazi wizards and being sentenced to crab jail? Taking refuge at Hogwarts as a sentimental excuse to play John Williams’ seminal Hedwig’s Theme?
What grounded the Harry Potter narrative arc was right there in each book’s title: a humble normie like us and the chamber of enchanted whatever, seen through a newcomer’s fresh eyes. Watching the third film in the Fantastic Beasts series made me wonder why Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski wasn’t the protagonist, as he’s a character the writers seem to have far more affection and humor for than anyone else. Especially the sidelined Newt, who doesn’t have any bearing on anybody’s life: not his brother, not his assistant, not his apparent friends. In any case, something must be done to make this shambling franchise more grounded in the world of its audience.
I’m not saying a period fantasy movie must be strictly realistic, but it should feel like it has bearing, risk, impact on its own setting and characters. Almost all of the magic sequences take place in liminal spaces of drab bank or admin buildings, and when they’re out in the streets of our Muggle world, they’re only in each wizard’s mental plane. We’re basically watching Law and Miller imagine beating the magic snot out of each other, and it’s incomprehensible, and it doesn’t look particularly textured or magical whatsoever.
The climactic duel between Magneto and Xavier—I mean, Grindelwald and Dumbledore—is just as much of a flop, running for about 40 seconds and ultimately leaving us exactly where we were at the start of the film. One Black character who doesn’t speak for the final 100 minutes of the movie has rejoined our heroes after going undercover: a traitorous Evil Woman character comes back to the fold, too: Katherine Waterstone’s forgotten character “Porpentina” makes a last-minute cameo.
I can’t promise that this exact same CGI rigamarole won’t just be repeated twice to uphold WB’s remaining promise to Harry Potter fans, but I can promise they’ll still show up—wands in hand, house ties neatly tied, ready to pen GellertxAlbus fanfic that’s more exciting and creative than anything on screen here.