The “Fantastic Beasts” series exists as a way for J.K. Rowling to build on the extremely lucrative Wizarding World franchise without continuing to shove Harry Potter down our throats. Taking place in the 1920’s, the prequel series follows magical animal expert Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to go about caring for the wondrous creatures without getting sucked into a major conflict in the wizarding community. But no matter how hard he tries, trouble always seems to find him. In 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” he accidentally stumbled upon a plot to infiltrate the U.S. wizard government by evil European wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Grindelwald was arrested at the end of that film, but the opening moments of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” see him escape back to Europe so he can… commit crimes.
Everybody wants a piece of Newt Scamander. The British Ministry of Magic, where his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) works, wants him to take on a position with them, dangling badly-needed travel papers as bait. His old friends Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) play the role of intrusive houseguests. And Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) wants him to go to Paris to make a move against Grindelwald without the Ministry’s consent. Newt initially refuses until he learns that his American love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston) is also in Paris, and he desperately wants to reconnect with her ever since she cut off communication after a newspaper article mistakenly identified him as the fiancé of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is in fact engaged to Theseus, but is also his former girlfriend.
Grindelwald, for his part, is rebuilding his empire. He still has the loyalty of about half the wizards in Europe, and he’s still in the ear of the extremely powerful, yet internally tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Credence survived his apparent death in the first movie, and has since fled to Europe where he’s been working at a sideshow with his cursed friend Nagini (Claudia Kim) while he looks for answers about his family history. Grindelwald wants to use Credence to kill Dumbledore and Dumbledore needs people like Newt to stop Grindelwald because they are unable to personally harm each other due to a bond in their shared past (officially it’s a spell, but there’s an unspoken emotional component as well). Thus they need to find loopholes in order to move against one another.
The film is really heavy on plot, with little room for fun along the way. I miss the sections of these movies where the characters just babbled about, say, wizard candy for several minutes. We don’t even get much of the Fantastic Beasts this time around, outside of a scene where Newt goes home for a minute or two before being interrupted. I guess my favorite creature in the movie is a sort of lion/dragon hybrid, but they’re all so irrelevant that it’s hard to get excited about any of them, as the film has to throw more characters and exposition at us that I’ll have forgotten by the time the next movie rolls around. That’s this movie’s lot, it wants to set up things that will be exciting and clever in future installments, but at the expense of being bloated and overwritten itself, thus decreasing interest in those future installments and the franchise as a whole.
There’s magic to be found in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” The sets, costumes, special effects, and actors are all up to the standards of the Wizarding World. But it’s the overstuffed script by J.K. Rowling herself that makes this an ultimately bland entry. I’ll see the future films, of course, but this franchise needs to turn itself around on the next film or else the whole series is going to get written off as a creative misfire.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action. Its running time is 134 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.