Written by J.K. Rowling and directed by ye olde reliable of the Harry Potter franchise, David Yates, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and is the second instalment in the new Harry Potter Cinematic Univer- I mean, Wizarding World franchise. Once again, we follow Eddie Redmayne’s magizoologist Newt Scamander as he is recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to thwart the plans of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Joining him once again are American Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), lovable Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), and Tina’s sister/Jacob’s partner Queenie (Alison Sudol), as they travel through Paris, looking to find the lonely and powerful Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), before Grindelwald.
To put it politely, this film was quite convoluted, feeling very bogged down by its overbearing compulsion to set up the pieces for the planned five-film series, whilst referencing as much as humanly possible from the Harry Potter series, often unnecessarily. The film undeniably suffers from this, as for me, the first film’s charms are kicked to the kerb in favour of a vague sense of doom and gloom and strange character choices. Jacob and Queenie are now together (yay!), but for whatever reason their relationship is put under strain almost immediately. Happily glossing over Jacob’s memory wipe at the end of the first film, we are instead treated to some uncomfortable manipulation of Jacob by Queenie, who then runs off to Paris after reading Jacob’s mind. For me, this created some difficult issues around Queenie, which are only exacerbated throughout the film as she makes one odd choice after another, all of which are justifiable on paper, but not so much in practice. Jacob and Tina likewise feel underused in this; as is Credence, with all these characters plodding along the path laid out by Grindelwald (or Rowling, take your pick). This leaves us with a core cast that receive little to no character development, with the exception of the film’s soon-to-be infamous final twist.
New players also join the cast, but often do little to add to the plot; William Nadylam’s Yusaf Kama (another wizard hunting Credence) and Callum Turner’s Theseus Scamander (an Auror and Newt’s “war hero” brother) are bland by virtue of how they are written, both offering decent enough performances, but serving to slightly expand our Wizarding World. Zoë Kravitz (who I enjoyed in X-Men: First Class and Mad Max: Fury Road) gives an intriguing and darker performance, but along with Kama and Credence gets thrown to the wolves by a clunky third-act exposition dump. Jude Law as a younger Albus Dumbledore plays to the character’s wiliness, whilst bringing a slight vulnerability to his performance. Unfortunately, the film barely acknowledges the romance between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, save for a throwaway line, something that I imagine only adds to the frustration of Depp’s casting as Grindelwald, itself a twist in the first film. While Colin Farrell was darkly seductive as “Percival Graves”, Depp seems to be struggling to match his predecessor in the role. Far from a bad performance, and determinedly avoiding the wackier performances of his past, Depp is calm, cold and menacing as the antagonist. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite live up to his character’s reputed silver tongue, although his justification for his cause provided some fascinating turns that will be interesting to see play out in future films.
This is the fatal flaw of The Crimes of Grindelwald; so concerned with expanding the Wizarding World, Rowling seems to be making the same mistakes as those that have come before her, with certain fantasy prequel trilogies springing to mind. The end result is some very unnecessary retconning for the sake of reference; Voldemort’s serpent Nagini is revealed to in fact be a blood-cursed witch (Claudia Kim) destined to permanently transform into a snake, while a young Professor McGonagall appears, despite the fact her character isn’t supposed to be born until eight years after this film. These serve to convolute and perplex long-time fans of the series, in a film that cuts from scene to scene, somehow covering so much ground whilst achieving very little. Consequently character development is often minimal or flawed at best, while the story lacks directive from the offset.
My favourite aspects of the first Fantastic Beasts were the sense of wonder the magical creatures instilled, and Redmayne’s performance in the lead role of Newt Scamander. In the role, Redmayne displayed a sensitivity and kindness rarely seen in male leads of the fantasy and/or science-fiction genres; his goal is never to harm, but to help, particularly the magical creatures with which he shares such a strong affinity. Here, Redmayne’s awkward Newt is placed front and centre and once again, he shines brightest when interacting with the eponymous fantastic beasts. These moments are when that sense of wonder is allowed to return, albeit briefly, providing some of the better moments of effects, cinematography and humour in the film. However, this doesn’t distract from Newt and Tina’s frustrating will-they-won’t-they relationship which tries to not just create, but drag out tension where it isn’t really needed. All of this exacerbates the structural issues of a film that jumps awkwardly around its disconnected scenes in its attempts to get from A to B.
Overall, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a decent film from a franchise that, quite frankly, has delivered far better content in the past. The performances and cinematography are solid, but the film is ultimately let down by convoluted plotting and unnecessary referencing and retconning. At the end of the day, one can’t help but feel that perhaps J.K. Rowling’s style of writing might be better suited for novels, but perhaps this will all make sense once we can see the bigger, five-film picture.