In October 2016, a month away from the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling — best known as the author behind the best-selling Harry Potter books — announced that there would be a total of five movies in the new spin-off prequel series. Immediately, it was clear that Warner Bros. and Rowling had decided to milk Pottermania for all it was worth, with no concern or relevance for how even the first entry would be received by the world. To fill these movies — over 10 hours of content would be required between the five chapters — Rowling landed on the great rivalry and frenemy relationship between Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in their prime, which she had hinted at in the corners of the Potter books over the years.
The Fantastic Beasts series’ end point is already known. Grindelwald will be defeated in a legendary duel and imprisoned, which will also bring an end to the global wizarding war, parallel to the Muggles’ World War II. But since that must be saved for the fifth and final instalment, Rowling needed to craft new characters and storylines that audiences would care about and invest in until we get there. Having chosen an awkward starting point in Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), whose first outing was a period Pokemon Go-adventure marred with dark conspiracies and twists, Rowling now needed to transition into the brewing conflict between the magical and non-magical folk. But not too quickly, there’s three more to go.
With the first sequel to the prequel — Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — that convoluted and retrofit approach shows its side-effects not only in the title, which makes no sense and simply consists of two entirely different things pasted next to each other solely for commercial reasons, but in also what happens on screen for over two hours. Though a lot takes place from a visual standpoint, with characters always rushing from one place to another, the film actually achieves very little during its runtime. There’s a feeling of The Hobbit to it all, in that it’s just spinning for time, because too much progress would hurt future entries. Most of what happens is either unmemorable or doesn’t matter, even though there are several subplots in action at any given moment.
Having been captured at the end of the first film, Grindelwald escapes in the opening five minutes of the sequel, because the story demands it. He flies to Paris to look for the orphan Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is looking for answers to his true parentage in the French capital. Dumbledore asks Newt to go to Paris to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, and he’s reluctant to get involved until he learns that promoted-Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is also there from her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her No-Maj lover Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose memory is restored because the story demands it. Newt’s former love, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who is now married to his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and a French-Senegalese wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) are also all in the mix, looking for answers, working with the Ministry of Magic, and on a revenge quest, respectively.
Rowling’s decision to send off returning and new characters on separate journeys for the most part would be fine if it all built up to something substantial. But the film culminates in a big speech from Grindelwald and a change of loyalties for certain characters, followed by a terrible climactic “fight” between two CGI-made waves of blue and orange colour. For what it’s worth, the creatures — both new and old — no matter how strange, including one called the Zouwu that looks like a giant cat with an insanely long, multicoloured ruffled tail, are all wonderfully brought to life with top-notch visual effects. But they inhabit a world that is otherwise empty and dull. And in wanting to be more sombre than the original, The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the edge off its characters, who aren’t as charming as they were before.
It doesn’t help that a lot of the characters hang around with little connection to the story. This applies to Credence’s new companion, Nagini (Claudia Kim), who is cursed with a blood curse that will eventually see her permanently transform into a snake that becomes Voldemort’s pet, which was naturally hugely controversial and criticised for Rowling’s choices and obliviousness. And it’s also true of Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), the several-hundred-year-old alchemist believed to have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, who is randomly dropped into The Crimes of Grindelwald for no discernible reason. But even the characters that do have big reveals in the film, such as Leta and Credence, fail to land with the proper weight because the audience has yet to develop a connection with them.
Making things worse, the film’s dialogue seems to directly address the audience at times. Characters mention things to each other that they ought to be already aware of — one explicitly reminds another of the death of the latter’s sibling — which makes their conversations feel entirely unnatural. It’s one of the obvious ways The Crimes of Grindelwald handles exposition. But even when it’s dealing with implicit messages — through Credence, Rowling talks about being the other in a world of others, hiding your true self, and learning about one’s past — the film doesn’t have anything interesting to say on those topics. Credence’s hunt for who he is and where he comes from is reminiscent of Rey’s journey in Star Wars, but in stark contrast to the approach Rian Johnson took with The Last Jedi, Rowling further restricts her universe rather than letting it expand.
In fact, George Lucas’ time with Star Wars is a good parallel for Rowling’s involvement with the Fantastic Beasts series. Lucas mucked about with the prequel trilogy at the turn of the century, creating new characters that seemingly existed just to be related to older ones and forever tweaking mythology and in turn, canon. Star Wars has done much better since Lucas sold it off to Disney, and maybe Rowling’s universe could do with that as well, for the original creator to pass on the torch. Though the Potter author churned well-written hundreds-of-pages dense novels at a buzzy rate of two years or less, she hasn’t been able to transfer that success onto screenplays. There’s little sense of what The Crimes of Grindelwald is about, and in trying to serve an ensemble while keeping an eye on the big picture, Rowling fails in crafting a narrative that is engaging, meaningful, or even just enjoyable.