Though it was written by J. K. Rowling herself, 2016’s Harry Potter expansion franchise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a weak attempt to recapture the magic of her earlier stories. Gone were the engaging original characters, replaced by a bunch of empty vessels. And the mythology that the author wove so deftly in the background of her Potter books was now foregrounded, which simply meant that we cared even less about what happened to whom and why. Though directed by David Yates (who made the final four Harry Potter movies, which includes three of the best ones), Fantastic Beasts practically drowned in self-seriousness; the Potter films had earned their portent across a whole series. The best thing about Fantastic Beasts was Colin Farrell’s dogged security chief Percival Graves, and Yates and Rowling pretty much added insult to injury when, in the picture’s closing moments, they turned him into Johnny Depp’s shape-shifting archvillain Gellert Grindelwald.
At least, with all that turgid setup out of the way, you’d think that the second entry in this new series, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, would settle into telling us an actual story and finding ways to make us care for its characters. Well, tough luck. The new movie has even more setup than the first!
The year is 1927. Grindelwald, having staged a daring escape from a flying coach over the skies of London in the opening scenes, is pursuing Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), “the boy with a malediction” — an obscurial, with the power of turning his suppressed rage into a massive, fiery, beastlike force. Grindelwald apparently wants some kind of segregation between Muggles and Wizards, with himself as pure-bred potentate. Our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a nerdy, sensitive introvert with a suitcase full of magical creatures, is entrusted by Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to travel to Paris and prevent the villainous dark wizard from harnessing Credence’s powers. Meanwhile, Newt’s beloved Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is already hot on Credence’s tail.
That all sounds simple enough, but the film presents us with scene after scene of narrative throat-clearing, dithering meetings and exchanges in which we are repeatedly given information on the importance of stopping Grindelwald, and warned of the ghastly evil of his intentions. There’s more mythology, and flashbacks to long-ago relationships and alliances, and introductions of more characters. (Here’s a pet peeve: If you’re going to make a prequel, why load it up with more flashbacks?) Amid all this exposition and setup, nobody really seems to do anything.
There’s also speculation about Credence’s true nature. The boy, raised by adoptive parents, wants to know where he really comes from. And here, you can see why Rowling might be so interested in establishing all this backstory. She’s getting at something about bloodlines, and families. Porpentina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is also along for the adventure. Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) is a Department of Magical Enforcement official. Theseus is engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), whose siblings we learn more about later. Of course, the Potter stories had a lot of siblings and genetic histories as well, but there, family and blood were a kind of destiny; now, Rowling seems to push against that a bit. I could say more, but I don’t want to give too much away.
The earlier tales had to do a lot of establishing, too. But they also found ways to absorb us in the particulars of the protagonists’ lives, especially through the ingenious structure of following the characters through their school years. So the kids grew up and had crushes, and dances, and clubs and tournaments and mini-mysteries and dramas … And somewhere along the way, we got to know them and love them. (Some of us quicker than others, admittedly. I was too old for the books, and it took me several films before I was hooked, so maybe there’s hope for me yet with these Fantastic Beasts pictures.)
But even if The Crimes of Grindelwald had a better script, I’m not sure much could have been done with it. Depp, once such a charismatic actor, mostly sleepwalks through his part, doing his usual tired goth weirdo bit — which is odd, since we’re told constantly that Grindelwald is an extremely persuasive figure, with a forked, seductive tongue, and this dude does not seem like he could convincingly order room service if he tried. Redmayne continues to overdo Newt’s hems and haws and mumbles and stumbles; his concave whimpering isn’t cute, or funny, or sad, or even interesting — it’s irritating. Waterston, one of the best actors of her generation, remains just glum and stone-faced throughout. Only Miller, playing the conflicted, lost soul at the heart of the story, does what he can with his character’s overwhelming desire to belong.
So, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a tiresome slog — but it ends well. After all that, Grindelwald has a rally in Paris for all his potential converts, and he talks of bloodlines and birthrights. There’s a vaguely Trumpian echo to it all. (“Let’s just hear what he has to say,” a character in the audience says.) Depp still isn’t particularly forceful, or charming, but Yates and Rowling put on a fascinating, impressive light show, as Grindelwald conjures up massive, magical projections of what will happen to the world’s future if the wizards don’t rule. And for a few seconds, the bad guy manages to be surprisingly convincing. It’s enough to make me wonder if this series might still have a few decent tricks left up its sleeve. We’ll see. This movie’s a bust, but I’ll let myself remain hopeful.