Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a follow-up to the 2016 Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, manages to replicate some of the first movie’s charm — the beasts are pretty fantastic — but it wrecks most of that goodwill by succumbing to the cumbersome (and ultimately counterproductive) way in which J.K. Rowling tends to retcon her own work, and the overwhelming effort exerted to set up a third Beasts movie. The flourishes that would distinguish the film, once again directed by Potter series stalwart David Yates, are obliterated by its finale, in favor of an as-yet untitled sequel.
As it turns out, the true crime of Grindelwald was wasting the audience’s time.
That shallowness is echoed by the film’s attempted political allegories. After a laughably short imprisonment, wizard-Hitler Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is back on the loose, and once again shoring up support for his crusade to rid the world of non-magical peoples (aka “no-majs” aka “can’t-spells”). Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who hems and haws about joining the fray, is told by his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) that he must “choose a side.” As true as it is that inaction is, in and of itself, a form of action, any attempted depth by Rowling (who wrote the screenplay) is scuttled by late-game twists that seem to ask the audience to empathize with the wizarding equivalent of Nazi sympathizers and collaborators.
Lest that analysis seem a little too serious for a film in which statues come to life and horses fly, it’s worth noting that, since ending the Harry Potter book series in 2007, Rowling has continually tacked on details to her work (e.g., Dumbledore’s sexuality, Jewish students at Hogwarts) that come off as backdating her level of social consciousness — rather than simply admitting that such things might not have occurred to her at the time, and course-correcting going forward. And that’s not even touching on the film’s reintroduction of Nagini as a Maledictus, which has been the subject of controversy due to the way her new characterization seems to play into harmful stereotypes (as well as the fact that Nagini is played by Korean actress Claudia Kim, despite Nagini being a Sanskrit name, and the character herself apparently having Indonesian origins).
That tendency to retrofit the wizarding world cripples The Crimes of Grindelwald in other respects, too. The narrative thrust of the film enters “Han’s last name is Solo because he was traveling alone at the time” territory, and veers into the fan fiction-esque bent of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Maybe they were subjects of curiosity, but, for instance, we never needed to know where Nagini came from, or what Nicolas Flamel does in his spare time.
While Cursed Child’s narrative flaws can be written off to a certain extent given the level of stagecraft involved in the play, the same can’t quite be said for Fantastic Beasts. There’s nothing particularly impressive about the CGI feats in the film — the fireworks that spells conjure up are splendid to look at, but are run-of-the-mill where modern blockbusters are concerned — and the knots that the plot twists itself into feel all the more jarring as a result.
Still, the beasts are the best thing about the movie. The creatures that Newt cares for are adorable (give us a Bowtruckle the Sentient Plant spinoff, please!), and they make a case for some alternate-universe anthology version of the franchise, in which each installment would simply provide grounds for another beast-based adventure. As with most special effects bonanzas, some of the creatures threaten to dissolve into CGI soup, but they’re still generally more dynamic than the tropes the human characters embody.
Nowhere is that clearer than with Grindelwald, whose distinguishing features are cosmetic (heterochromia and deathly pale skin) rather than anything to do with the actor who plays him. Depp’s performance is fine; it’s just that he doesn’t bring anything memorable to the table despite being the franchise’s central villain. And that raises the question of why — given that it’s been established that Grindelwald can shapeshift — the part wasn’t recast so it could’ve escaped the overhanging shadow of starring an alleged abuser.
That’s not to say that the film is a total bust. Anything that comes out of the broader Harry Potter universe starts off at a significant advantage. There’s a passionate, built-in fan base, and, more generally speaking, magic is fun. It’s impossible to watch any Harry Potter movie and not be a little swept up in the spectacle (there’s something breathtaking about the film’s first sequence, which takes place on a carriage as it flies through a thunderstorm), and in the desire to be able to live in that marvelous a world yourself. It just falters when the film makes overt callbacks to the Harry Potter movies with musical or visual cues — when the thrill of those moments fades, you’re reminded of how much better those films were.
For those simply looking for a dose of Potter lore, The Crimes of Grindelwald is likely to be an adrenaline high, as Rowling whips up twists and turns that would be right at home in the best daytime soap operas, aided by Yates’ familiar flair for the material (which, if the sudden increase in close-ups is any indication, seems to have been influenced by Barry Jenkins’ recent work). For the most part, the cast manages to carry it off (particular props to Dan Fogler, who remains on par with the beasts as a franchise strength), though the introduction of a gaggle of new characters alongside the first film’s core quartet (Redmayne and Fogler, rounded out by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) means that they all have less to do.
Then again, maybe that makes sense. This is a series where the individual characters take a back seat to the world that Rowling has built, and to the pressure to meet the expectations of the fan base. It’s a blessing and a curse, as the world becomes shakier and shakier as Rowling attempts to build off of it rather than around it; lacking the proper attention, the characters turn into stereotypes. A flashback of Newt in which he’s played by Joshua Shea makes it clear just how much of a cartoon the performance has become.
At 134 minutes, The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t a breeze by any definition of the word, and it becomes exasperating when so much of it turns out to be filler, drawing out plot points that could easily be resolved in a 30-second conversation (a habit held over from the Harry Potter books, though those could hold their own ground). The movie dangles cohesiveness and satisfying conclusions in front of an audience that must return for a third installment of the series — if one that would be building off of the series’ weaknesses rather than its strengths. Please, for next time: more beasts, and fewer crimes.