Toward the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, there is an extended sequence wherein a character we barely know narrates to another theoretically important character who is barely in the film the truth of the latter’s backstory, which rests on forced marriage through mind control and apparently ties them into prominent figures from the Harry Potter backstory and a newly introduced prophecy. Just then, another character jumps in with their own addition to the story, which introduces the element of infanticide and immediately contradicts everything we’ve just heard, all to set up the reveal of the subject of the story’s real identity. If you wanted to preserve in amber everything wrong with the current age of genre franchise storytelling, in content (the prioritising of lore over character or theme, the clunky shoe-horning of gratuitous unpleasantness to make a childish milieu more superficially ‘adult’) and form (it is almost visually incomprehensible, set largely in a low-lit room, with shots so narrow and cuts so jarring there is virtually no sense of spatial geography), this scene would serve as a perfect case study. It’s the low-point of a film with few high points, a muddled, turgid slog which represents the nadir of J.K Rowling’s expanded ‘Wizarding World’ franchise thus far.
The film picks up months after the events of the first Fantastic Beasts (an entertaining but uneven affair which featured some intriguing concepts, visuals, and performances within a fatally confused story), as Johnny Depp’s titular wizard supremacist villain is transferred from imprisonment in New York to London in 1927. Inevitably, he escapes en route with the aid of his followers, and puts into motion his plan to make the world’s witches and wizards rise up and conquer their non-magical counter-parts. His dastardly scheme involves tracking down and recruiting Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the troubled young repressed wizard at the heart of the preceding first film’s most compelling thread, who is said to be the heir to a powerful wizarding bloodline. He’s not the only one looking for Credence, though: Albus Dumbledore, here played by Jude Law as a younger but already sage teacher, recruits his former pupil Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence himself before Grindelwald can – a mission Newt adamantly refuses, but then ends up basically doing anyway for unrelated reasons. Meanwhile, newly promoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) – Newt’s chief ally in the previous film and apparently his ex-girlfriend now – is also on Credence’s tail, while her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her non-magical beau Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) also return, his memory wipe from the end of the first film having not stuck for half-explained reasons. And on top of all that, Newt has to deal with the return of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), his former Hogwarts sweetheart who is now engaged to his Ministry of Magic employee older brother Theseus (Callum Turner).
You can likely surmise from the above that The Crimes of Grindelwald has a lot of plot. Despite of this over-abundance of narrative material, however, the film is almost devoid of incident for much of the runtime, Rowling and returning director David Yates dedicating much of the film’s to setting up the convoluted mechanics through which it will manoeuvre around its characters to where they need to be and laying the groundwork for its climactic revelations. The result is a film where storytelling and character development drown in exposition, where almost nothing actually happens and every major character speaks entirely in plot points. The drama is here driven not by decisions but by contrivances (the most laboured of which is a protracted misunderstanding between Newt and Tina), while no character has anything like a coherent motivation or psychology beyond what will get them to the next plot point. It’s rather galling to watch a writer famous for creating beloved characters who’ve become shorthand for certain archetypes fail to present even a single recognisable human being here (with the possible exception of Fogler’s Kowalski, who’s disoriented awe at the world of magic and silent film-esque pratfalling still charm, and who provides a solid straight-man foil to Redmayne’s mannered mugging). The final act features one character making a choice that ought to be devastating, but their motives are so ill-defined all that registers is confusion. Even Grindelwald himself is a non-entity, spending more time delivering portents in a bizarre Trans-Atlantic accent through distracting corpse-like make-up and heterochromatic contact lenses than committing any of his titular crimes (Depp’s turn here is no non-descript it makes Rowling and Yates’s ardent defences of his casting even more embarrassing). We’re repeatedly told that Grindelwald is a dangerously persuasive figure, but there’s no Mephistophelian charm or demagogic charisma to be found in anything we see of him.
There’s little sense of who this story is even meant to be about, with Newt and Tina having little actual impact on the plot, the crucial-on-paper Credence being talked about more than he acts, and young Dumbledore surprisingly marginal despite Law bringing wry authority (the way he turns up the whimsical intonations whenever persuading someone to do something dangerous is especially pleasing). The Crimes of Grindelwald seems to be concerned not with character or even with plot but with mythos, with expanding the ‘Potter-verse’ simply for its own sake. Even the film’s one genuinely entertaining trip into backstory, a brief jaunt to Hogwarts featuring cameos by younger versions of beloved characters, falls flat once the rush of nostalgia brought on by the familiar iconography and the swell of John Williams’ familiar theme fades: it’s a moment of no actual emotional significance, simply a cheap play on the goodwill earned by past glories. By the time the film ends on an utterly meaningless revelation about a character’s true identity, what we’re watching isn’t storytelling but brand management, less a film than an illustrated Pottermore entry.
Worse yet, all of this is filtered through a suffocating visual gloom and an obnoxiously self-serious tone. Yates’ Potter films often suffered from a noticeable lack of magic in their drab, washed-out colour palettes, and he here doubles down on the oppressively dreary aesthetic. An oppressive mixture of greys, blacks, and browns dominate in the confines of Phillip Rouselott’s tight framings, often making it genuinely hard to tell what is happening. Even scenes set outside in daylight are dimly lit and utterly drained of colour. There are moments of magic here – the underground lab/menagerie in Newt’s home has a suitably picture book-ish surrealism, the beasts themselves are again design highlights, and the sight of Grindelwald signalling his followers by producing large black flags which fall over city rooftops like plumes of smoke has a German Expressionist-esque menace – but for the most part this is a downright visually ugly film, one that splits its narrative between two cities – Paris and London – and ends up making them look identical. Any sense of childlike wonder this franchise had is gone, save for the brief interludes involving Newt’s beasts (which are almost entirely superfluous but at least offer some visual and tonal variety), The Crimes of Grindelwald regarding its world with a po-faced severity it tries to reinforce through some genuinely unpleasant moments of cruelty, most notably a scene where one of Grindelwald’s followers murders a toddler. There’s an attempt at a timely message about the pernicious nature of fascism here, but good luck deriving any kind of concrete message from the film’s melange of vague platitudes about taking sides and the danger of reinforcing extremism through violence and its borderline distasteful historical allusions. This is all posturing of the most vacant kind, the most empty and adolescent pleas to be taken as serious and grown-up.
Above all, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a film that leaves you with a sadness: sadness at seeing a world so iconic sullied, sadness at seeing talented storytellers seemingly misunderstand the appeal of their own creation, and sadness at what films like this mean for the future of mainstream cinema. “Together, we will remake this world and make history”, Grindelwald declares at one point – Rowling’s remaking of her own world will likely make history too, for all the wrong reasons.