Review: “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Less than an hour into “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” I took a second to count how many different storylines the film was dividing time between.  At that point I came up with five, with at least another one or two popping up later in the movie.  The fragmented and not fully realized story is only a portion of the problems with this sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the spinoff series set in the “Harry Potter”universe.

Directed by frequent Potter filmmaker David Yates and with a screenplay by series author J.K. Rowling, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” picks up some months after the events of the first film. The dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is in the custody of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, but escapes during his transfer to London to answer for his crimes in Europe.  Meanwhile, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller),the powerful Obscurial who disappeared at the end of the first film, has reappeared with a circus in Paris. Grindelwald wants him because he believes he is the only one powerful enough to defeat his former friend and now-enemy, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law).  Aurors are also on Credence’s tail, trying to intercept him before Grindelwald does—among them is Tina (Katherine Waterston).  But wait, she is also not the only one trying to find him, as Dumbledore has asked a reluctant Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to locate Credence as well.  Newt’s journey brings him into contact with his friends Tina, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and muggle Jacob Kowalski, as well as some new faces who Newt has some history with, like his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and former flame Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz).  And don’t forget an assortment of fantastic beasts,none of who have anything to do with the plot and are seemingly only present to fulfill the requirements of the film’s title.

Theseus (Callum Turner) and brother Newt (Eddie Redmayne)

All of this is surely going somewhere—after all, this is only “Fantastic Beasts” movie two of five. But “The Crimes of Grindelwald” rambles on and on without giving us anything particularly exciting or innovative: two things most of us have come to expect from the Potter universe.  The previous Potter films, including the first “Fantastic Beasts” all had tight stories with an overall direction they were heading for.  But it’s hard to determine even now just where the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise is trying to go with all this, as it switches between Newt, Credence, and Grindelwald, but then also introduces additional story arcs for Queenie, Dumbledore, and Leta.  By the end of the movie the story and the relationships between the characters becomes so convoluted it’s a bit hard to follow.  Maybe part of the problem is that we still don’t know these characters that well, although “Fantastic Beasts” did a decent job introducing audiences to this franchise’s protagonists.  With the “Harry Potter” series, audiences lived through a large chunk of all the characters’ lives, so that when big things happened to them, we felt it. Here, things happen to the characters, but we feel nothing because we’ve been given no reason to care about them yet. Newt may be the main protagonist, but he doesn’t have any real purpose in this story’s conflict, at least none that has been established yet; compare that to Harry Potter, who we know from the beginning is destined to have a showdown with Voldemort.  It doesn’t help that this film is so dark and practically devoid of humor, even from Jacob, who was a great source of comic relief in the first movie. 

Even the visuals in this film aren’t as impressive as they should be.  Many of the creatures who popup in this movie come off as rather cheesy and unoriginal (although those adorable nifflers from the first film are back, and don’t get nearly enough screen time).  And it isn’t just the film’s content that’s dark; visually, we travel from dreary set piece to dreary set piece.  This film does connect more to the existing Potter universe, however, and in some ways it’s kind of fun, like when a very familiar object and character turn up in one scene.  We also get to see younger versions of existing characters like Dumbledore, who Law does a good job embodying, even if he isn’t as colorful and eccentric as his older counterparts.  And when the story brings the characters to Hogwarts and John Williams’ original theme music kicks in—well, that’s going to mean chills for any Potter fan.

Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) rallies his followers

But there are other, less pleasant, ways that Rowling tries to tie everything together as well, one involving a twist that I won’t mention here, and another involving a new character played by Claudia Kim.  It turns out that that character is Nagini, who in this film is a human woman who can turn into a snake; most who are familiar with Harry Potter will know that Nagini was the name of Voldemort’s snake.  This is Rowling’s story and her characters, and she has the right to change the history however she wants to.  But it’s frustrating to see her not only mess with characters for little reason outside of shock value, but also behave as if these were her intentions all along, on top of trying to make her stories appear more progressive than they are, but walking back when she is given the opportunity to actually demonstrate that (those looking for any indication of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s supposed romance will not find it here).  And we haven’t even touched yet on the big scandal surrounding this movie: the refusal the recast Johnny Depp despite domestic abuse allegations against him.

The actors are all fine, with Redmayne especially appearing more comfortable in the role of Newt, it’s just a shame that the script is so fragmented and spends so much time on new characters who turn out to be not all that important that none of them really get any good scenes, including Depp’s Grindelwald, who we only saw at the very end of the first film.  As of now, he’s little more than your typical bad guy who is bad for the sake of being bad. Oh, and wanting to start a war between wizards and muggles for some reason.  Here’s hoping that Rowling and the filmmakers can pull this together for the next movie, because we still have three more of these to get through, and as it stands, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a sluggish mess, devoid of even an overarching message or theme.  It’s the first film in the Potter universe—and I say this as a big Harry Potter fan, truly—that isn’t just not good, but terrible.  Sadly, the magic is has disappeared.

Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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