There’s a paradox inherent to skilled worldbuilding. It’s this idea that the more you know about a world, the more confining it is to your imagination. So as the world becomes bigger on the page or screen, it actually becomes smaller in your mind. With Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Harry Potter falls into this trap, and even though the movie is competent, it strips away the key aspects that made the Potter universe one of the great touchstones of modern culture. The real crime here isn’t the movie’s quality, but its lack of imagination.
Explaining Fantastic Beasts to a newcomer is perhaps your first red flag indicating the spinoff franchise was a bit misguided. The title is a reference to an obscure Hogwarts textbook that, though mentioned only a couple times in the original series, was turned into a standalone book to give fans something else to explore (or, more cynically: buy).
That book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, had no story—it just described magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe—but it was popular with fans, so when the time came to decide where to take the “Wizarding World” next (the question of “if” was a foregone conclusion, it seems), it became the moniker of that new venture. If anyone was concerned that a peripheral reference book was going to have to support five movies (!!), they didn’t show it.
The series’ first obstacle, then, was to find a story to fit with the name, so they made Fantastic Beasts’ fictional author, Newt Scamander, the main character of the new movies and set him inside a broader narrative that would chronicle the battle between beloved hero Albus Dumbledore and his dark nemesis Gellert Grindelwald. That ultimate aim is cool, certainly, but why the path to that story had to start with magical animals is anyone’s guess. Would the title Harry Potter: The Rise of Grindelwald really have fared worse at the box office?
Those confounding origins wouldn’t matter if the Fantastic Beasts franchise told a good story, but two installments in, it hasn’t showed us anything too inspired. The first movie has nice effects and a warm ending, but it’s brought down by an sprawling story and a bizarre central performance from Eddie Redmayne as Newt. The sequel thankfully begins the Grindelwald vs. Dumbledore conflict that’s supposed to be the center of this enterprise, but it still does more to set up its three sequels (again: !!) than actually be a good movie in its own right.
Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t bad for its execution. It boasts some of the most striking images of the Harry Potter franchise, keeps things moving fast enough to make a full-feeling two-plus hours and features fine performances from the terrific Jude Law as young Dumbledore, a better Redmayne and, though he carries a 747’s worth of baggage into this movie, a charismatic Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. Nothing on the screen will offend you in Crimes. What’s on the page might.
Crimes of Grindelwald is two hours of exposition and scene-setting. It doesn’t tell a complete story in almost any sense. Characters don’t change except for their locations and proximities to each other, and its plot value comes via backstory rather than progress. For fans who are already committed to see this series to the end, that won’t be a problem. For anyone looking for a satisfying night out, Crimes holds little worth. It’s like watching a mid-season episode of television, and its cliffhanger ending (distracting and upsetting on its own) doesn’t help.
What’s more, Crimes of Grindelwald has foregone satisfying story beats in favor of micro-level worldbuilding that does more harm to this universe than good. Notable Potter side characters Nicolas Flamel and Nagini are given more backstory here, but as neither impacts the story in any way, their appearances feel cheap. Their function is to be things you recognize, and even if you go to these movies to “experience Harry Potter” again, that function isn’t valuable enough. Crimes offers you “more Harry Potter” by mostly adding detail to the familiar rather than creating anything new. That tactic misunderstands the idea of escapism, which for many was the appeal of Harry Potter in the first place.
J.K. Rowling, brilliant author of the Potter novels and credited screenwriter of the Fantastic Beasts movies, was a master of worldbuilding in the original series. You might take this to mean she packed the world with a lot of detail, but in actuality, the Harry Potter books are great specifically for their lack of detail. Let’s return to the original description of Hogwarts from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to understand how this works:
“Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the most iconic setting in the history of children’s literature. That’s all Hogwarts is: A vast castle with many turrets and towers. It’s simple, but it contains so much. Think about the castle in your head when you read that. Does it have windows? What color is it? What’s the roof look like? Where are the doors? How many of those turrets and towers are there, exactly? You can answer all those questions even if the answers aren’t written down for you. The point: There’s immense power in the unsaid. In movies, there’s similar power in the unseen.
Any manifestation of a fictional world has to find a balance between honoring what people expect and maintaining the integrity of people’s imaginations. In her writing, Rowling created an imaginative world because it quite literally was populated and detailed by reader’s imaginations. She outlined the Hogwarts castle, but you colored it in. It was a brilliant construct, and it gave the Wizarding World immense creative potential. In other words, it involved fans in a participatory way. The Wizarding World may have been hidden from Muggles thanks to confundus charms and other magic tricks, but that unseen world was still yours, and that made it feel possible, attainable and tangible. You could almost reach it.
However, Crimes of Grindelwald disrupts that participatory relationship because it fills in the details for you, and thus takes away that collective ownership that made Harry Potter special. It caps your imagination, but also at times communicates your imagination was wrong in the first place. Things like Nagini and Flamel and no-maj and the beasts all count as “worldbuilding,” but they build through trivia rather than story. Because of that, they leverage a strange authority that, ironically, feels oppressive and restrictive rather than rich. There’s only room for one imagination in Harry Potter. It’s jarring, and sort of sad.
There is hope for Fantastic Beasts, but so far the franchise has focused on giving out unwanted information rather than inviting us into a fresh, engaging story. This world is still gorgeous and exciting, but we’re starting to see the limits of its creators. Crimes of Grindelwald represents the downside of Harry Potter’s transition to the screen. It’s a reminder that as soon as the Wizarding World left our imaginations, it stopped being perfect. We can adjust to a world where Harry Potter is disappointing, but it would be tragic to have to adjust to a world where it’s uninspiring.