The Fantastic Beasts franchise is simultaneously unavoidable and baffling. Unavoidable because of one number: $7.723 billion. That’s the worldwide gross of the eight film Harry Potter series. That’s the sort of number that doesn’t allow for neat conclusions (sappy epilogues or no). What doesn’t make sense is, oh, the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film. An adaptation of a fictional textbook that somehow fails to find a single narrative hook over its two-plus hour runtime, stumbling over adorable creatures (that aren’t especially adorable nor fantastic), through endearing characters (that fail to be either endearing nor memorable) towards an effects-heavy climax that’s almost entirely incoherent.
While the first Fantastic Beasts was a film without a purpose beyond selling tickets, its sequel is tasked with expanding its rough sketch into a full-bodied, five-film franchise. Still directed by David Yates – who helmed the last four Harry Potter films to generally good effect – the film features an actual antagonist this time: Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Where its predecessor was content to skip idly through fields of CGI beasts, Crimes of Grindelwald has purpose! Momentum! Stakes! Yet it’s somehow still incoherent and unengaging!
The problem with Crimes of Grindelwald is that it’s trying to do way too much. It needs to establish the nefarious schemes of Grindelwald – a sort of neo-Hitler or proto-Trump demagogue – while exploring the backstory of the first film’s curiously underdevelop ‘obscurial’, Credence (Ezra Miller). There’s a few new characters with their own mysteries, like Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange and Claudia Kim’s maledictus, Nagini (yes, that Nagini). Then there are the feints at Harry Potter lore for fans requiring service: from offhand references to a Tolliver to appearances from Dumbledore (Jude Law), McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) and even Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky). Finally, you have to incorporate the first film’s forgettable characters, so Newt (Eddie Redmayne), Tina (Katherine Waterston), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are all along for their ride …even if their connective to the ongoing narrative is increasingly tenuous.
This is too much movie for two hours and change. The cumulative effect of this stuff is exhausting. You could get away with underplotting an overloaded narrative in the later Potter films because it was a reasonable expectation that most fans had already read the books and could fill in the gaps. Here, there is no book, so unless you’re content to spend an hour or so trawling Potterverse for the particulars after watching, you’re likely to be somewhat confused.
It’s not simply the storytelling that renders Crimes of Grindelwald confusing, though. The editing feels remarkably clumsy for a film of this scale. Take the scene mid-film where Tina and Newt are reunited beneath the streets of Paris. When Newt is led to Tina, now an Auror, by the mysterious Yusuf (William Nadylam), he is quickly imprisoned by his guide. Within literal seconds, Yusuf passes out, one of Newt’s creatures picks their lock to ensure their escape, and in a perplexing cut the group find themselves on the street fighting a Chinese dragon. It’s exactly as muddled as it sounds, and similarly off-kilter editing can be found throughout, particularly in the climax.
The climax – despite a clusterfuck of obfuscatory editing prior – is at least a showstopper in of itself. We’re treated to an extended rally from Grindelwald, where the dark wizard is satisfyingly villainous and seductive all at once. It suggests a bigger, ballsier film that the one we’re watching, and promises a satisfying third film with conflict and confrontations. But the fact that this franchise can’t muster up the promising of an engaging story until its third film is the real crime here.