On the surface, what made the Harry Potter film franchise great is present in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. You can see the components clear as day, as if you’ve lined up all the ingredients for a potion next to your cauldron, ready to go. But for some insane and unclear reason, you’ve forgotten to add them together and mix them up. The Crimes of Grindelwald results in nothing more than an unfinished, lazily thought out magical adventure fantasy that relies too heavily on the bigger picture.
The film picks up sometime after 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is back in London, banned from international travel after the events in New York. The Ministry of Magic wants Newt to become an Auror, so that he may assist in the investigation for the missing Credence (Ezra Miller). Newt’s brother, Theseus (Callum Turner) is an Auror, also pleads with Newt to not mess everything up. The two may or may not have a strained relationship that has something to do with Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), but the film hardly goes into these details, despite most of the drama relying on the love triangle.
Much of this film is concerned with plot and not so much the characters inhabiting this magical world we’re already familiar with which is where the Harry Potter films and the Fantastic Beasts films differ. With Harry Potter, there was always a structure the audience could expect — Harry goes to school and as we go through the seasons, we learn more and more about Harry’s destiny, often times in places we might not have expected (Prisoner of Azakban). That structure never felt repetitive, but comforting. As Harry’s world became darker and darker with each movie, Harry and the audience could find some relief in the familiar halls of Hogwarts. In Fantastic Beasts, J.K Rowling is working from scratch, creating a world around a character barely mentioned in the original run of the series. Newt Scamander can be interesting, and Redmayne plays him with great charm and wit, but because the film is so concerned with its larger plot, the rise of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), he never feels like he’s organically part of this story.
There’s no doubt that the film looks great, but magical spells, cute creatures and bright lights can only take the film so far. Probably the most disappointing part of The Crimes of Grindelwald is the ineffectiveness of its new characters. Leta Lestrange should have been a more interesting character, especially with that particular last name but her story is more convoluted than intriguing, telling us nothing new about the Lestrange family. Perhaps the most exciting revelation was making Nagini (Claudia Kim) a maledictus, a great set up for a tragic figure and perfectly re-contextualizes Harry Potter canon without screwing with it, but Kim doesn’t have much to do here. Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore helps a little, and he has some great emotional beats not found elsewhere in the film.
Depp as Grindelwald is perfectly serviceable, but the film struggles with explaining why Grindelwald is such a threat. For a character who’s name is in the title of the film, he feels greatly underutilized, his motivations unclear.
Despite this film being a second in a series, the characters don’t feel established enough. Story beats whisk by without a second’s thought, telling rather than showing why we should care about Leta and Newt’s childhood friendship, the Theseus/Leta/Newt love triangle that is more implication than concrete proof, the relationship between Jacob and Queenie, the one between Newt and Tina, and most importantly, why Credence is so important to Grindelwald.
The film ends on a cliffhanger, as well as a revelation. For Harry Potter fans, that revelation might make you angry but mostly, it’s just confusing. If there was more character development, more genuine, thoughtful moments instead of big action sequences, if this all played out as organically as the original films, then there would be no problem. The magic is dwindling, though, the lumos fading to black on what could have been an entertaining, possibly enlightening prequel series.