Exactly when a sweet story about an awkward zoologist saving magical beasts turned into a multi-city war between good and evil, we’ll never know. But rest assured, the Fantastic Beasts franchise — a prequel to the beloved Harry Potter series — is a sinking ship, weighed down by complicated plot lines, too many new characters and ever-expanding lore that leaves everyone but hardcore Wizarding World fans scratching their heads.
The screenplay for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, written by author JK Rowling herself, would have better served as an appendix entry in the original Harry Potter books, rather than a more-than two hours long movie, which in the time does little to move the story along.
The movie begins with Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escaping from American wizard prison and heading to Paris to recruit young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who at the end of the first movie in the franchise had revealed a terrible power nested within himself, one that could wipe out entire streets and kill mercilessly and without hesitation.
Grindelwald, little more than a footnote and mentioned in passing in the original Harry Potter series, is supposed to be the Voldemort stand-in for this series — a wizard waiting to divide the world, the haves (pureblood wizards and witches) against the have-nots (Muggles and mixed bloods). But while Voldemort’s strategy involved hate speech and power-grabs, Grindelwald speaks of freedom, equality and the “greater good”.
And while Grindelwald is someone you imagine to be a versatile leader and extremely charismatic, Depp’s version of the supposedly powerful wizard is a pasty slimeball with an ineffectual drawl and little menace. If you’re going to name the movie after the villain, the least you could do is prop up someone with more personality than poor, washed out Depp, a casting decision again heavily defended by Rowling.
To put a stop to Grindelwald’s evil plan of wizard domination, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, playing a younger version of the Hogwarts headmaster), at this point only a teacher at the wizarding school, enlists former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), our sweet zoologist who’d rather chase after magical beasts than pick a side in the brewing war between humans, magical or not. Joining him on this quest are old friends Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), along with new entrants — Newt’s auror brother Theseues (Callum Turner) and his old flame Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz).
Unfortunately for the film (and for the audience), it can’t decide whether its a political thriller, an action-filled adventure story, or a family saga a la Star Wars (the prequels, of course). The wild tonal inconsistencies never let the viewer comfortably enjoy what is essentially supposed to be a gentle jaunt into a magical world most of us grew up with.
We’re introduced to new characters at every turn but they don’t stick around long enough for us to get to know them. Half-baked and with zero motivation, Rowling will still have you believe that these characters are supposed to mean something to you, simply because they’re distantly related to someone you loved in the original series.
A case in point (SPOILER ALERT): In a throwaway scene, a younger version of Professor McGonagall (made famous in the original series by Maggie Smith, played here by Fiona Glascott) shows up, but she has little to do but shepherd students out of a classroom, with a nary glance at her face. Minerva McGonagall, an iconic character in the Potter universe, is an integral part of the story, one would say as integral as Dumbledore, and to introduce her so brashly and with little reason, comes off as a cheap bait-and-switch.
Crimes of Grindelwald is littered with such moments, and while hardcore fans might thrill at the sight of these little Easter eggs and red herrings, the rest are left in the dark to fend for themselves.
And these are not the film’s only problems of course: Issues like racial tokenisim, straight-washing and cultural appropriation make up the rest of this doomed film.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. Crimes of Grindelwald is at its best when some of director David Yates’ (Potter alum) magic begins to shine, despite Rowling’s best efforts. Scenes like a trip inside the Parisian Ministry of Magic, or the bit with a magical travelling circus are gorgeous and filled with a lightness that the series needs more of.
For now, we have three more films to look forward to (or anticipate with the appropriate amount of trepidation). Our advice? Don’t hold your breath.