There was a time when each new entry in the Harry Potter canon was a treat to be savored, each new detail a gift to be admired, each new character a friend to be loved.
But if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the 2016 spinoff, raised the question of how much Wizarding World lore was too much Wizarding World lore, the new Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald definitively answers it: This. This is too much.
Crimes of Grindelwald picks up where the last one left off, more or less, though you only really need to recall the broad strokes for this one. The tl;dr version: It’s the 1920s, “magizoologist” Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is our hero against the rise of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), and a mistreated young man named Credence (Ezra Miller) is somehow key to this whole battle.
The first chunk of the sequel is spent maneuvering all the major players to Paris, because at some point in the planning of this franchise it was decided that each new Fantastic Beasts film would visit a new city within the wizarding universe.
Crimes of Grindelwald is long on puzzles, but short on reasons to care about solving them.
What the point is of all that moving around remains unclear since, aside from a few establishing shots of famous landmarks, there’s little to distinguish magical Paris from magical London from magical New York. But so it goes with this movie, in which tons of things just happen, with scant consideration given to the hows or whys.
There are something like a dozen major characters and half a dozen storylines in Crimes of Grindelwald. In addition, there are subplots within subplots, supporting characters with their own supporting characters, Easter eggs butting up against other Easter eggs, and secrets stacked on top of secrets, until the whole precarious pile comes tumbling down in a chaotic third act.
And, yes, occasionally, a fantastic beast will wander through – just often enough to remind you that the title of this film series is Fantastic Beasts. Niffler and Pickett are still the best ones, though an enormous cat-like creature called the Zouwu gets some adorable moments, too. Mostly, I got the sense that the creators regretted saddling themselves with the animal theme.
Collectively, this all proves too much ground to cover in 134 minutes, particularly since Crimes of Grindelwald has a habit of wandering off into corners and getting lost in alleyways. (Sometimes literally: These characters have never met a stranger they didn’t want to follow to a sketchy second location.) Yet, even as a Harry Potter fan, I can’t say I wanted to spend more time in this movie. Crimes of Grindelwald is long on puzzles, but short on reasons to care about solving them.
To be fair, there are some pleasures to be found here. It’s nice to see the Hogwarts grounds again, and the school serves as a setting for a series of flashbacks so engrossing, I wished they could’ve been the whole movie. Jude Law makes for a likable young Dumbledore, capturing some of the character’s mischief and keen intelligence, though he, like every other character here, is hobbled by the sloppy script.
As for his nemesis, Grindelwald, Johnny Depp is fine, if you can forget about his ugly personal life. He’s neither as magnetic as he was in his early Pirates heyday nor as irritating as he’s been in the recent Kevin Smith movies – and he doesn’t hold a candle to Colin Farrell, who played a disguised version of the character in the first Fantastic Beasts.
The real driving force behind Crimes of Grindelwald seems to be a burning desire to set up a sequel.
Of the newer characters, the only real standout is Leta Lestrange, played by the effortlessly compelling Zoe Kravitz. Her relationship to Newt, in particular, seems complex enough to serve as the emotional spine of Crimes as Grindelwald. Alas, we have to settle here for it being one subplot of many. (Accio fanfiction!)
At their best, these books and films have offered entrée into a parallel universe as rich and textured as our own, but with more promise and more peril. It was a thrill to slip through 9 3/4 and discover the odd delights on the other side, while getting to know Harry and the gang like they were our own friends, and clutching their hard-won life lessons to our own hearts.
In contrast, Crimes of Grindelwald feels half-assed on every level, from the character motivations to the world-building. There’s nothing specific or special about this version of Paris; you’ll find a more magical portrayal of the city on any 99-cent postcard. Our returning heroes feel less familiar than they did when they were introduced in the last film, thanks to a rash of baffling decisions.
And while it is possible, if you squint very hard, to make out some of the deeper themes at play here – like the pull of family, the weight of regret, and the dark allure of fear – the real driving force behind Crimes of Grindelwald seems to be a burning desire to set up a sequel. If only it had gone to the trouble of making me want to see one.