I’m “biast” (con): hated the first movie; not a fan of Eddie Redmayne
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Well, this is what sequels are supposed to be, right? More of the same thing you loved the first time, but also MORE: bigger, faster, brighter, scarier, funnier, musicier, more of whatever it was the defined the original. So in this respect, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a successful sequel. It has taken all the things that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was and doubled down on them. This second in the promised five movies about Newt Scamander, wizard naturalist, is:
• MORE! incoherent than the first!
• MORE! confused about who its protagonist is!
• MORE! uncertain about why any character is present here, and what their narrative purpose is!
• MORE! crammed with contrivance and coincidence!
• MORE! plot than ever without any of that tedious mucking around with story
• MORE! noise and action and flashbang distraction with none of that tedious mucking around with emotional engagement!
• MORE! incentive to punch Newt Scamander in the face!
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is so intent on not making any sense at all that not only is the film more dedicated than its predecessor to ensuring that finding fantastic beasts has no bearing on anything, but also that whatever crimes Grindelwald may have committed are likewise entirely beside the point. The movie does open with Grindelwald escaping from wizard prison in 1927 New York, which is very likely a crime, but we don’t actually have any firsthand evidence of why Grindelwald is so bad in the first place that he’s considered the most evil wizard ever. (Voldemort hasn’t come along yet, of course. By the time he does show up in the Harry Potter books and movies, we knew quite a bit about him. Not knowing about him was never a problem earlier, because the stories did not revolve around him.) Quite literally, the phrases “fantastic beasts” and “the crimes of Grindelwald” and everything associated with them have absolutely nothing to do with each other here.
People — including the evil wizard himself — keep saying that Grindelwald wants wizards to rule over muggles, with Grindelwald himself at the helm of course, but people say a lot of things, and how would he achieve such a feat, anyway? As portrayed by Johnny Depp (Sherlock Gnomes, Murder on the Orient Express) — who hasn’t had any Depp charisma since at least Sweeney Todd — Gellert Grindelwald has none of the seductive charm we’re meant to think is how he pulls people under his sway, and yet for some reason a very tiny cadre of followers are in his thrall, and it’s considered by all a genuine threat that he might convince others to join him. (This is difficult to believe.) But even though he’s so powerful, for some reason he needs to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller: Justice League, Trainwreck), who is a special kind of wizard and very powerful himself, and who can help Grindelwald kill Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Spy), currently a teacher at Hogwarts and the only wizard powerful enough to defeat Grindelwald. Barebone escaped from New York at the end of the last film and must be found by the good guys before Grindelwald finds him. And also the good guys must find Grindelwald. Dumbledore can’t do that himself for reasons we will learn later (and which are a whole huge other problem, not least because it should mean that Grindelwald wouldn’t be worried about any threat from Dumbledore at all).
So: “It has to be you,” Dumbledore tells Scamander (Eddie Redmayne: Early Man, The Danish Girl), but we never understand why: He’s a bumbling dork writing a book about creatures that even wizards think are weird. What possible reason could there be for him to be present in this story at all? Grindelwald isn’t, I dunno, harnessing magical creatures like those Newt considers his purview to help him take over the world or anything. (In my review of Beasts I called everything that Scamander did with his beasts and with the finding of them “almost literally” a sideshow to the main story, but those bits of plot derail here are literally literally a sideshow: one completely superfluous sequence takes place actually at a wizard circus-y sideshow.) And at no point during the course of this movie does Scamander ever do anything that convinces us that he has overcome the useless ineptness that characterized his klutzing around in the first movie, or to justify Dumbledore’s faith in him.
All of this occurs in maybe only the first 45 minutes of Crimes, so there’s still lots of more to-ing and fro-ing for the unsupportably long movie to do, and yet I’m already exhausted trying to make the convolutions of this plot sound halfway comprehensible. Stuff just happens, one thing after another, with little narrative unity, until the movie just stops. This isn’t a story. It’s J.K. Rowling — in her second screenplay after Beasts — writing her own fan fiction. Not the rare good fan fiction, but the kind that merely rambles on about unenlightening encounters between too many people that don’t move the story forward but supposedly reveal some smothered emotion that was, in fact, either already blatantly obvious or so woefully out of character that you cannot fathom what you’re watching. And everyone is someone else’s hidden cousin or former babysitter or secret crush or a surprise! appearance by someone who’s been name-checked in-universe before so why not get them onstage for a pointless cameo.
Special negative kudos to the movies for treating the female characters so badly, and in so many distinctly appalling ways. Which rather puts paid to the notion that all we need are more women writing movies to fix Hollywood’s misogyny. Witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz: Gemini, The Lego Batman Movie) is nothing more than a pawn of the plot to bring together Newt, who once loved her, and his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner: Victor Frankenstein, Green Room), who is set to marry her, and give them some feels. Nagini (Claudia Kim: Avengers: Age of Ultron), a woman cursed to turn into a giant snake occasionally, is nothing more than one of those name-checked figures — she will, in the future, be Voldemort’s companion — and someone to stand sadly and silently next to Credence. Sweet Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) of the first movie suddenly an abusive, manipulative partner to her muggle love Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler: Barely Lethal, Europa Report). Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston: Logan Lucky, Alien: Covenant), who is an Auror meant to be powerful both in a magical sense and an authoritative sense, does little but stand behind feckless Newt and take cues from him. (Newt and Tina are meant to have incredible romantic tension, but Redmayne and Waterston have zero chemistry together.)
Rowling is a terrific novelist; I’ve just finished the most recent installment in her series of Cormoran Strike novels, no-fantasy-involved contemporary detective fiction, and it’s so smart and so engaging that it’s difficult to believe that the same person also wrote this script. Except of course screenplays are a very different, ahem, beast, and you don’t catch a story in a script in the same way you catch one in prose. Returning director David Yates’s (The Legend of Tarzan, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) messy and incomprehensible action sequences are regularly interrupted by long infodumps offering what is intended to be essential backstory, events with supposedly huge emotional impact, and instead of them being properly dramatized, everyone is just standing around talking about them in the past tense. Matters that are dangerously charged with racism and sexism are dropped in and land like the cheap, monstrous, unmagical tricks they are. Characters suddenly know things they couldn’t possibly know except that such information is vital to moving them along to the next plot point. The whole endeavor — in another doubling-down of the first movie — is so bent on keeping secrets that it fails to let us in on what’s going on at all. Though frankly, considering what we do see here, that might be a blessing.