Sitting befuddled and muggled through all 130 minutes of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I finally understood how my non-comic-book-reading friends feel when they go to Marvel movies. The viewer is expected to have seen not only the first Fantastic Beasts (which I have) and the old Harry Potter movies (which I also have), but to have read all of the books (which I haven’t) and most importantly maintained a working memory of all the continuity minutia The Crimes of Grindelwald dredges up and messes with. Those without advanced degrees from Hogwarts will be lost — and likely very bored as well. Only the hardest of hardcore Potterheads could derive pleasure from this hodgepodge of arcane wizard lore, clunky setpieces, and miscellaneous, franchise-prolonging misery.

This sequel to the first Fantastic Beasts continues its story like a run-on sentence. It just keeps going and going, bouncing between various characters and their disconnected subplots. The run-on never ends, either; the final scenes are more ellipsis than period, with a cliffhanger designed to be continued in the next Fantastic Beasts.

Warner Bros.

The hero is still Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a shy collector of mystical monsters who is drawn into a battle between factions within the wizarding world. The established order wants to protect the status quo, while a populist mage named Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) begins accumulating followers in the hopes of enslaving humanity. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling’s symbolism — which connects Grindelwald’s gang to Nazis and modern fascists  — is pointed, but not entirely coherent. Grindelwald is set up as a kind of wizard version of Hitler (with his bleached hair and alabaster skin, he’s the whitest of white supremacists), and then he alludes to the actual Hitler, and it’s hard to reconcile the two. He also convinces some of the characters to join his cause, and it’s difficult to understand why anyone would go along with him when, for all his refined talk about diplomacy, he maintains a nasty habit of turning into a giant fire demon and roasting half of Paris.

Although Grindelwald is the title character, he’s not in much of the movie, which is more concerned with the leftover plot threads from the first Fantastic Beasts. Ezra Miller returns as Credence Barebone, despite his recent bout of being totally dead, while one of Newt’s former Hogwarts classmates and lovers (Zoe Kravitz) creates tension with Newt’s current romantic interest, the American wizard hunter Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). All three sides of this love triangle look miserable in each other’s company; Redmayne and Waterston set off about as many sparks as a damp matchbook.

There are so many characters scattered across multiple countries bearing various allegiances to muggles or magicians or pure bloods — I haven’t even mentioned the doomed love affair between Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, or the mysterious circus performer with a blood curse, or young Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is both a humble teacher at Hogwarts and also the only wizard alive who can defeat Grindelwald — and yet the movie achieves a kind of Seinfeldian nothingness. In between chaotic action sequences, people sit in rooms exchanging stilted dialogue about MacGuffins or their pasts or, in one bafflingly terrible scene, explain the backstory for one character — only to have another character interrupt and explain how, no, that’s wrong, and this is what really happened. Then later it turns out both of those people were wrong, and the character has a third identity. Wasn’t this series about a quirky dude chasing magic monsters? What happened to that?

Fantastic Beasts 2
Warner Bros.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is still nominally about Newt. For whatever reason, though, Rowling decided to lean much more heavily on the Harry Potter mythos this time around — setting several scenes at Hogwarts and giving Law’s Dumbledore (and his undefined past relationship with Grindelwald) a key supporting role. There’s really no need for all the Potter callbacks within the story, though, and so the two parts — a mystical adventure in the 1920s, a bunch of digressive retcons — sit adjacent and apart, like the human and wizard populations of Fantastic Beasts’ world.

As a casual Potter fan, I don’t expect to understand everything going on in a movie like this. I bank on at least having fun with the special effects and clever spells and creatures. Not this time. The opening chase and escape makes zero visual sense, Newt’s critters get less screen time than Johnny Depp, and everything onscreen is bathed in dingy browns and grays. The period costumes are sharp, but the colors are glum and drab. It’s just a sad movie to look at from every possible angle.

The first Fantastic Beasts was a bit of a mess. The second one is actively bad. The longer this spinoff franchise goes on, the more damage it does to the legacy of the Harry Potter series — which knew not to overstay its welcome. Fantastic Beasts 2 has plenty of spells, wands, and wizards — and absolutely no magic whatsoever.


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