There are times watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald that feel like directing rush hour traffic at a four-way stoplight that is green on every side. With dozens of speaking roles, including a host of new characters and even more returning from Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, this second chapter in screenwriter J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World/Harry Potter prequels is a bounty of information that seems important even if we’re not sure why, where plot turns seem to occur just to keep things exciting, and far fewer fantastic beasts are present than the title implies.
Again directed by David Yates, the film begins with an elaborate and effects-heavy escape by the very evil Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the Ministry of Magic, so that he may begin his quest to assemble an army of wizards who believe as he does: that wizards should destroy, or at least rule over, the planet’s non-wizard population (meaning all regular humans). In other words, he’s Magneto from the X-Men movies.
Somehow, the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is the key to this, and must be found as he secretly combs the globe looking for his real parents—a quest that eventually brings him and the rest of the story to Paris. Also searching for Credence is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is sent to Paris by a strapping, young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who for some reason can’t go to Paris himself for fear of running into Grindelwald. Because of something in their past (that may or may not be tied to a possible romance), Dumbledore literally cannot confront Grindelwald; the reasons for why are eventually made clear but seem rather arbitrary.
While it’s true that having the first full-fledged Harry Potter character in a Fantastic Beasts movie is the connective tissue that so many fans have been waiting for, it’s one of the least interesting aspects of the story. Law moves about the film a little too knowingly, and while he’s considered by many to be the world’s most powerful wizard, his most impressive trick is putting a fog bank over London so that he and his fellow wizards can interact above it without being seen by the muggles below. I almost got more of a charge out of seeing a young Minerva McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) moving around the periphery at Hogwarts, which also makes a healthy-sized appearance in The Crimes of Grindelwald.
As for the budding romance between wizard Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Newt’s muggle best friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), they just show up on Newt’s doorstep in Paris as if they were wedged into the screenplay with the subtlety of a crowbar. Granted, one of the film’s most interesting turns does occur when Grindelwald begins the process of tempting Queenie to the dark side after she feels slighted by Jacob for a split second. The sequence shouldn’t work, because neither of the characters is especially interesting, but this strange type of seduction to a better world is as eerie as it is a perfect example of how Grindelwald’s ideas can be twisted to appeal to just about anyone.
Remaining one of the film’s most interesting presences is Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein, Queenie’s more sensible and mission-oriented sister. She also has a bit of a thing for Newt (and vice versa), although their potential romance keeps running into self-generated obstacles. Shockingly enough, Tina is also searching for Credence, and when all of these forces converge on Paris, the results are impressively destructive. One of the things I did enjoy about the movie is that it isn’t afraid to get extremely dark. There’s actually an early scene where Grindelwald orders one of his minions to murder an infant, and he does it (off camera, thankfully). So when a major confrontation occurs, like the one in Paris, there’s a real chance that characters or bystanders might die in sizable numbers.
The Fantastic Beasts movies are populated by adults, and as a result have more mature themes and consequences. Perhaps the best example of that is the presence of Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who appeared in a less central role in the first film. Now we find out more about her past with Newt and his brother Theseus (played as an adult by Callum Turner), to whom Leta is engaged. More than perhaps any other character in the film, Leta is drawn as a complex, layered woman, torn between doing what is right for the world at large and what feels right for the preservation of the magical world. Grindelwald turns on his powers of persuasion, and her easy decisions seem decidedly less so. In the last few years, Kravitz has turned into one of the most interesting young actors working today, with turns in such works as Gemini, Kin, Rough Night, and the HBO series “Big Little Lies.” Her performance here moved me in unexpected ways as the struggle of many a wizard is given a face and a choice.
The Fantastic Beasts movies are meant to be a spectacle, and there’s no denying that every penny is on the screen, from the period cityscapes and the many large- and small-scale spells that are cast to amaze us to a few more impressive example of Newt’s immense zoo hidden away in his magic suitcase. But a great deal of what’s on display feels empty and more about the splash than furthering the complex plot. In the first film, the dozens of new and amazing creatures were important to the story, but here, it’s just about being bigger and more elaborate, without a beating heart behind any of it. Special effects are meant to enhance a movie’s plot and characters, and when even those let us down, the effects have nothing to hang upon.
A part of the reason Newt’s creatures seem so wonderful is because Redmayne’s reactions to them are priceless—his expressesions are full of wonder. The same goes for Miller’s Credence, who is the embodiment of the danger that can spring forth from a person forced to endure abuse and neglect from a young age. As in the first film, Miller’s performance is searing and impossible to take your eyes off of. Meanwhile, Depp is playing a bad-guy type—an extreme look coupled with the grand physical gestures of a man counting down the seconds until he gets to strike a Jesus Christ pose (which he does). I’d say the verdict is still out on Law’s embodiment of Dumbledore, who seems more about charm, pleasantries and intrigue at this point in his long history. I suspect as the character deepens in future installments, Law will rise to the occasion and make Albus a force to be reckoned with.
Much of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like sagging sequences of exposition punctuated by eye-popping action sequences, with a sprinkling of easter eggs to keep the die-hard Harry Potter fans happy. Still, there’s a revelation about Credence at the end of the film that I simply didn’t understand the importance of, and I’m guessing others who only know the Wizarding World from the movies will feel the same. But I am the patient sort, and I’m hoping that down the line, Newt and his deep respect for all creatures great and small will once again return to the foreground of the Fantastic Beasts stories. As it stands, this one is more a big, clumsy slight-of-hand entry than an expertly crafted grand illusion.