It’s telling that when the title of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald shows up onscreen, the words “Fantastic Beasts” are in tiny letters compared to the rest of the cumbersome title. What was once billed as a charming little prequel to the Harry Potter films has metastasized into a planned five-film series, and as such, has sprouted a dark and convoluted mythology to justify its grandiose presence. The Crimes of Grindelwald, then, is 134 minutes of chaotic subplots clashing against each other with no narrative center. It offers reams of exposition without resolving anything, merely moving a bunch of characters around to put them in place for the next installment.
Even the central characters of 2016’s amusing if forgettable Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them often take a backseat in what is ostensibly their movie. Eddie Redmayne returns as “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, but his study of magical creatures is a tertiary concern at best now that evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who was revealed at the end of the previous movie, has escaped and is threatening to take over the world. Newt’s partner in magic (and potentially in romance), American wizard Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is barely in the movie and has almost nothing to do when she is, and her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s non-magical baker beau Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) are generally just tagging along for the ride.
The events at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts are rapidly undone in order to set the new plot in motion, but there are so many new characters and new plot developments that the movie quickly becomes a convoluted mess. Grindelwald heads to Paris to gather his followers, and he’s pursued not only by Newt and his crew but also by agents from the British Ministry of Magic (including Newt’s brother Theseus, played by Callum Turner), a mysterious Senegalese wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and troubled young man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who caused destruction in New York City in the first movie.
Credence’s fearsome powers as an Obscurus hold the key to Grindelwald’s attempts at world domination, and the young man himself is on a quest to find out his true parentage. Newt’s ex (and his brother’s current fiancée) Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) is also looking to discover her family secrets, and these efforts culminate in an absurd sequence near the end of the movie, when characters stop the plot dead so they can deliver lengthy monologues about their entire life stories.
This movie is full of such info-dumps, often seemingly holding no purpose other than to nudge longtime Potter fans with connections to the original series’ characters and settings (Crimes is set in 1927, decades before the Harry Potter stories). Look, it’s alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowksy), whose work Harry Potter mentioned once! Hey, now we’re at Hogwarts, the wizarding school where Harry and all his friends will study one day! Never mind whether these connections are meaningful or even make sense; they’re in the movie just to provoke gasps of delight and recognition from hardcore fans.
The biggest connection Crimes has to the Harry Potter stories is the presence of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who will one day become the head of Hogwarts (played by the late Richard Harris, and then by Michael Gambon), as well as Harry’s mentor and friend. Dumbledore has a complicated past with Grindelwald, and he spends most of Crimes standing on the sidelines, advising Newt and fending off questions from the Ministry of Magic.
Law brings a welcome swagger to his portrayal of Dumbledore, and one of the only promising things about this movie’s all-setup structure is that it indicates more of Law’s Dumbledore to come. Redmayne remains twitchy and uncomfortable as Newt, delivering nearly every line in what sounds like a stage whisper, but he has nice chemistry with Waterston in the handful of scenes they actually get to share. Depp’s recent inability to play anything but inhuman weirdos serves him well as the megalomaniacal Grindelwald, but he’s still a bit underwhelming as a villain, especially when his climactic act involves giving what amounts to a supernatural TED Talk.
And what about the fantastic beasts themselves, the alleged driving force behind this series? They’re still here, and they still look pretty fantastic, thanks to the top-notch special effects work. But they’re afterthoughts at best, thrown in for a tiny bit of comic relief before the movie lurches ahead into the next inscrutable plot development. Although the beasts look impressive, the overall visual style (courtesy of returning director and Potter franchise veteran David Yates) is ugly and washed-out, especially in the rain-soaked opening sequence of Grindelwald’s escape, a gray-blue smudge in which it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening.
The prospect of three more of these movies is pretty dismal, and while there’s the requisite shocking reveal at the cliffhanger ending, it’s certainly not enough to carry nearly seven more hours of content (nor does it really make much sense). If Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (who wrote the screenplays for both Fantastic Beasts movies) is determined to extend and expand her Wizarding World indefinitely, she’s going to need to do better than these tedious and absurdly detailed footnotes.