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It’s a curious thing about the latest Harry Potter–related movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald—until the last 15 minutes, the eponymous character hasn’t committed much in the way of crimes. The story’s big plot twists that have Potter allies running around the internet begging people not to reveal spoilers have nothing to do with Grindelwald’s crimes either. Come to think of it, we’re never particularly clear on what Grindelwald’s heinous crimes were from the first movie that landed him at the very top of the Most Dangerous Dark Wizards of All Time list in the second one. But the fact that his so-called “silver” tongue has been cut out seems to offer a clue.
In some ways, The Crimes of Grindelwald (rated PG-13 for a half-clad statue and scary action) is the perfect big-budget fantasy movie for our thought-policing times. For while we’re to take it on faith that Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) will commit some horrendous acts in the future, mostly all he has done to land himself in the maximum security Ministry of Magic cell we find him in at the beginning of this story is a bit of Auror impersonating. Oh, and he’s given some speeches. Speeches so dangerous, they alone appear to be the main threat he poses. Even the ostensibly freethinking Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) agrees that the best way to combat the persuasive powers of his childhood friend is physical defeat and suppression as opposed to more and better-reasoned speech.
To be fair, there are some vestiges of classically liberal thought in Dumbledore’s caution to the Ministry of Magic that to treat Grindelwald’s followers too harshly is to drive them toward his extremism. But the notion that the simple-minded masses must be protected by their betters from rhetoric they lack the intellectual capacity to sift is nearly as offensive as the idea that wizards have a natural right to rule Muggles “for the greater good.” Certainly the premise that one becomes the greatest threat to the wizarding world primarily on the basis of words is. If cutting out tongues to prevent them uttering things we don’t like is the standard, exactly who are the bigger villains here?
As to the quality of the movie beyond this troubling theme, it’s revealing that a bad guy with an outlandish blond hairdo and a predilection for holding rallies isn’t getting more love on the Rotten Tomatoes meter.
It’s not that the movie fails on all levels. Rowling and director David Yates, along with their likable cast, are too talented for that. There are still witty parallels between the wizarding reality and ours, and though he’s criminally underused, Dan Fogler as Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski never fails to get a chuckle whenever he’s on screen. The big sell of the Harry Potterverse—world-building—is present as well and taken to new, gorgeous heights. If we got to ooh and ahh at a 1920s American Flapper version of Harry Potter in the last movie, in this one we get delightful visions of a Parisian Art Deco variety.
But on one significant level it fails spectacularly: plot. While I’d be the first to cheer the fact that Crimes of Grindelwald drops the Puritan-bashing of the previous film, it goes one step further and drops everything else along with it. Like a low-rent soap opera, characters we saw die are miraculously resuscitated with little explanation. Others whose histories are well-established are suddenly rewritten to accommodate additions that cannot conceivably fit into previous timelines. Our protagonists run from one place to another with almost no rhyme, reason, or clear purpose. Worst of all is that everything that occurs for a good hour and a half of the two-hour runtime turns out not to have mattered much at all.
What we’re left with is a pretty parable that whispers to the young that it is sometimes right to silence bad ideas by force. I combat it not by confronting Rowling and Yates in the street and demanding they not be allowed to make films but by coming here to tell you about it.