The Worst Harry Potter Movie Was Frustratingly Close to Being Good
Crimes of Grindelwald remains worth watching, if only to see what could have been.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the oddest blockbusters ever made. Based on a fictional textbook, and guided by the creative vision of “the Harry Potter movies made a lot of money and we would like that to continue,” it tried to be both a free-wheeling adventure and the Wizarding World’s Phantom Menace.
A spinoff, a prequel, and a test of whether the Potter franchise could survive beyond the bounds of Hogwarts Castle, Beasts mostly works. Its Gilded Age New York setting puts the magical world in an intriguing new light, and there are enough cute critters, charming characters, and moments of sheer spectacle to paper over a meandering plot. It made good money, and won critics over to a Potter-verse expansion. So why was the Beasts franchise just put on ice? The series has apparently ended with 2022’s The Secrets of Dumbledore, but the answer goes back five years.
The short answer is right in the title of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Grindelwald, a minor player in the original movies and the secret villain of the first Beasts, is a magical Mussolini. The non-magical equivalent would be a movie called Audubon Magazine: The March on Rome. It’s not just tonal dissonance, but complete tonal confusion.
The beastly side comes from our ostensible hero, soft-spoken magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). In Beasts, he used his empathetic nature and pocket dimension of magic monsters to track down a dangerous parasite called an Obscurial. The movie ends with the reveal that Grindelwald was behind the Obscurial attacks, and in Crimes Newt takes a backseat in his own franchise, aiding the hunt for Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) without ever offering a satisfying answer to why a zoologist is needed to fight the rise of fascism.
Grindelwald is gathering followers, and our heroes are trying to stop him, but this conflict runs through the tedious saga of Credence Barebone (a stultifying Ezra Miller). Credence, a character seemingly knocked off in Beasts before being brought back to serve as a walking magical superweapon, is obsessed with learning the truth of his parentage, and the movie indulges him despite the black hole where his personality should be.
Crimes is a frustratingly okay movie full of ideas for better ones. Redmayne, and Dan Fogler as his bumbling muggle sidekick, are excellent. An enchanted glove beckoning Newt into a dark alley suggests an espionage thriller played out with magical spycraft and luscious outfits. Elsewhere, Newt harkens back to Beasts by taming adorable and inventive creatures. A scene where he charms a feline dragon with a jangling cat toy is funny, but it feels like a cute animal subplot crammed into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Crimes, above all else, wants you to be fascinated by lore. There are prophecies and blood pacts and secret siblings and love quadrangles and callbacks, enough to fill dozens of harrypotter.fandom pages. But precious little actually happens. It’s a movie curiously afraid of its predecessor’s success, as Beasts’ characters are sidelined so we can bring back Dumbledore, revisit Hogwarts, and otherwise be begged to remember the good times.
J.K. Rowling wrote Crimes’ screenplay, and the most generous feedback would be that it highlights her strengths as a novelist. There are good gags and clever world-building touches, from the magical mops that putter through offices to the pushy teapots that lighten serious conversations. But Rowling apparently forgot that every prophecy and obstacle Harry Potter encountered was an excuse to tell an adventure story. In Crimes, every plot point is an excuse for something to not happen, not while there are sequels to be teased.
Late in the movie, Newt uses his magical menagerie to break into a vault containing information on Credence’s lineage, only to find it empty. So he rushes off to have the movie’s supposed emotional highpoint explained to him by a tertiary character, who gives a lengthy, flashback-riddled monologue revealing Credence’s origins. Then another tertiary character immediately contradicts them, using their lengthy, flashback-riddled monologue to tell the truth. This involves, among other details, two babies being swapped, a magical sexual assault, and a literal family tree employed for the benefit of confused viewers. What does any of this have to do with stopping an evil wizard?
Five years later, Crimes is a blueprint for how not to write a franchise blockbuster. There are an exhausting number of characters and subplots. Nothing is resolved; pieces are merely put in place. It’s dark and dreary and “mature,” but in a silly way; the villain has a baby murdered so we know he’s bad. Rowling and Warner Bros. insisted on sticking with Johnny Depp while he faced abuse allegations, only to buckle and recast with Mads Mikkelsen for the next film. Replace Depp with Jonathan Majors, and you can see Marvel repeating the same blunders.
There’s an alternate universe where Fantastic Beasts spawned a series of competent one-off adventures. Imagine Newt and his muggle pal as globetrotters helping misunderstood magical creatures on each exotic stop. But we live in a world where even Ghostbusters is more concerned with peeling back interminable layers of lore to fuel the YouTube Industrial Complex than just telling a joke, so we got the dark and dreary Crimes instead.
But Crimes revealed this strategy has no long-term viability. Frequent Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves tried to right the ship with The Secrets of Dumbledore, but it wasn’t enough. For every hardcore fan eager to learn the backstory of Dumbledore’s roommate’s father-in-law, a dozen casual fans saw it as a slog to skip, and so the Harry Potter machine has finally ground to a halt. Five years removed from the franchise’s worst film, it’s easy to see why.