Towards the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) gives his followers a glimpse of what they can expect in the coming years if he isn’t put in charge. The magic future-predicting dust he blows out of a skull reveals bombed-out shells of formerly great cities, soldiers running through the mud, and a line of civilians being marched out towards cattle cars. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, Grindelwald wants to stop World War II, and also maybe the Holocaust!
This is but one of many elements in this movie that just make no fucking sense. Everything points to Grindelwald as an allegorical Aryan totalitarian leader. His speeches have eye-rolling fascist undertones. He’s a proponent of “pure blood” superiority, and wants wizards to take their rightful place as the master race. His secret lair, Nurmengard Fortress, is in Austria. His hair is even icy blonde! Do you get it yet?
But hey, why not add in a completely contradictory detail to muddle the picture a bit, and give the illusion of intricacy. It’s a lot easier than actually diving into what actually makes Grindelwald complex.
That unwillingness to engage with the potential richness of its universe is what makes the sequel Fantastic Beasts directed by Harry Potter alum David Yates, such a slog. It’s bloated, both in characters and in stray storylines, and left me, the kind of Harry Potter fan who will correct your wand technique a la Hermione, utterly confused. The plot, assuming there is one, focuses once again on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), magical zoologist and friend to all monsters, who gets swept up in the fraught wizarding political and ideological struggle between Grindelwald’s pure blood fascism and everyone else, who just want to be magical in peace.
Why would I care about Leta Lestrange’s (Zoe Kravitz) parentage when we only saw her for half a second in the first movie, and this sequel sets her up as barely more than a love interest with great outfits? Should I really root for Newt to succeed at anything other than successfully tending to a kelpie? And why bother to introduce Bunty (Victoria Yeates), Newt’s seemingly competent and love-struck assistant, if she doesn’t appear at any other time in the film besides a random aside in his zoo-like basement? Justice for Bunty! Girl, you can do better.
The first Fantastic Beasts felt unnecessary but kind of fun, a jaunty caper down memory lane with enough callbacks to the magic of the original franchise to keep fans happy, while introducing us to a new wizarding world: New York! The set design and world building is phenomenal and gorgeous as ever, but it feels empty without real, full characters to bring it to life. And rather than build upon what was established in the first movie, Crimes of Grindelwald repeats the exercise all over again, introducing more characters, more problems, more...yawn.
Newt is inherently a boring hero. “I don’t take sides,” he tells his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), an Auror for the Ministry in the beginning of the film. He just wants to be with his creatures, and maybe get lucky with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, utterly wasted here). But while that might make him a good guy, it doesn’t make for compelling story, which is why he and No-Maj pal Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) get swept up in the fight to hunt down Grindelwald, who has escaped captivity and is now wreaking havoc in Paris.
And speaking of Paris, never has a location been so wasted. That peak Jazz Age destination is rendered about as interesting as Argus Filch’s Hogwarts office.
That’s not to say there aren’t some good things going on in this movie — they just aren’t given the time and attention they need.Take Nagini (Claudia Kim), for example. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Voldemort’s prized pet snake would be getting a backstory of her own: she’s a Maledictus, a human who can take the shape of a snake, working in a magical traveling circus. Great! Except I don’t feel like I know anything more than that after seeing her onscreen for two and a half hours. And I wish I did.
In fact, The Crimes Of Grindelwald could have been fascinating if it had recentered away from Grindelwald and a genealogical mystery that doesn’t pay off, and focused instead on the people the magical community chooses to reject. People like Nagini, and Credence (Ezra Miller), the orphan/Obscurial from the previous movie who somehow survived his onscreen death and made it to Paris, or Jacob and would-be fiancée Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), whose relationship is doomed to fail because of cruel laws that prevent intermarriage between No-Majs and wizards. Queenie’s journey to the dark side is this movie’s least explored, could-be-best plotline. Instead, we get a lot of that magical tiger thing that Newt is obsessed with.
Some things will warm the heart of any fan of the franchise, including the scenes at Hogwarts and a thinly veiled Harry Potter callback. A young Minerva McGonagall is a nice touch, and whoever decided to cast Law deserves a raise. He’s the young Dumbledore I never thought I needed but now desperately want more of.
Still, nothing is enough to save a movie that seems designed for nothing else than to milk a cash cow for as long as possible. At the end of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry: “The ones who love us never really leave us.”
Someone took that way too literally.