At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.
After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.
It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.
A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.
The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.
The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.
The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?
Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)
This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.
Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.