Directed by David Yates
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law
As is often the case with these serialized movies, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has to assume that you’re a fan at this point. And you have to be able to make your way through the thicket of mythology without getting lost or nudging your companion in the ribs for a quick backstory. The extra challenge with Grindelwald is that screenwriter J.K. Rowling insists on obscuring the path even further by planting subplot after distracting subplot along the way.
Grindelwald picks up where 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left off, opening with a bravura escape by the titular dark wizard (Johnny Depp) from captivity in the hands of the American Ministry of Magic. Our protagonist, mumbly magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has been banned from international travel by the British Ministry for his role in the first movie’s climactic battle in New York, and is being wooed for an Auror position (think of a magic policeman) by his newly introduced brother Theseus (Callum Turner). There are more crucial recruitments going on too: Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), at this point still a Defense of the Dark Arts professor in Hogwarts, is egging Newt to lead a fight against Grindelwald—the venerable academician has to recuse himself for personal reasons that will send a frisson through audience members of the LGBTQ community; on the other side, Grindelwald is seeking to consolidate his quest to have Wizards rule Muggles (also known as No-Majs) by trying to persuade Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful Obscurus—or a wizard repressing his powers to destructive effect—to join his movement.
There. Whew. That’s all you need to get caught up on the stuff that matters in this prequel sequel. As long as the narrative is attached to Grindelwald’s objective of getting the message “Wizards rule!” out to his fellow magical brethren, the movie zips along. (It doesn’t help, though, that Depp is strangely affectless and charisma-free in the role.) But once it dips into romantic subplots involving the Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Alien: Covenant’s Katherine Waterston) sulking over a misunderstood engagement; or a love triangle between Newt, his brother, and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), the troubled descendant of a powerful wizarding family; or Creedence brooding and whining about his origins to his snake-transforming companion Nagini (Claudia Kim); or Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) pining for her No-Maj love Jacob Kowalaki (Dan Fogler), the narrative sputters and loses focus.
One of those subplots, though, will play a universe-shaking reveal at the end of the third act. The problem is all the treacle you need to wade through to get there. I say, bring on more of the central conflict! Bring on more of those magical creatures! (Although it’s interesting to see how Rowling can keep her fantastic beasts relevant—by my count, only one cute, platypus-like, kleptomaniac Niffler played a pivotal role in the climax.) And by all means, bring on those metaphors! (Rowling is unabashedly political IRL, and it’s bracing to see her weave her thoughts about this precarious political moment into the fabric of her narrative.) Without those franchise ingredients, you might be stuck contemplating, as I did, the magical qualities of the cast’s high cheekbones.