One of my favorite childhood memories is when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the very first time as a nine-year-old boy. I’d heard so much praise regarding about The Boy Who Lived from my friends and family members but it was a whole other experience to actually read it and get enveloped into this world of wizardry and wonder populated by well-realized characters I could relate to so easily. There was so much vivid humanity that informed Harry Potter, his friends and his enemies, it just made that world so compelling. With the newest entry in this sprawling Harry Potter universe, clumsily entitled, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the world, specifically all kinds of extended mythology that takes place in it, has taken precedence over the characters and that results in a total mess of a movie that would be wretched even if it wasn’t connected to an infinitely superior series of books & films.
As for the story this go-around, well, screenwriter J.K. Rowling has crafted a bizarrely structured story full of subplots but no real plot to unify them. The closest thing we have to an overarching story entails Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being called upon by Young Hot Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to save Credence Bareback (Ezra Miller) in Paris, France from the clutches of recently escaped wizard criminal Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). If you’re wondering how Credence Bareback came back to life after dying in the first one, it’s never explained, one of many after-effects from the first Fantastic Beasts that The Crimes of Grindelwald just hand-waves away as having gotten resolved off-screen in between movies.
This includes the amnesia of Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler), who got his memories back and is still in love with wizard Queenie (Allison Sudol). Soon, everyone’s in Paris, France, including Newt’s estranged former potential love interest, Tina (Katherine Watterston). Much of the movie is dedicated to just focusing on individual characters and what they’re going through but because there’s so many individual people the film has to keep up with, nobody ends up getting fleshed out. For instance, Queenie just sort of wanders around Paris for a bit before she has tea with Grindelwald and then decides to become evil, while Credence, despite being supposedly integral to the story, is mostly just sitting in an empty Paris house for most of the feature with pointless supporting character/fan-service Nagini (Clauda Kim). Did I mention Newt has a rivalry with his brother and also has an ex-lover, the latter character played by Zoe Kravitz?
So many characters are in here, but there’s no characterization to be found. It’s all empty fluff with characters speaking explicitly how they feel about other people without ever demonstrating it. “Tell, don’t show” has consumed this production and refuses to let it go. The hallow nature of everyone in the story means the third act, which hinges on numerous moments of big pay-off’s for certain characters, falls so immensely flat that it becomes embarrassing. The worst of these climatic dramatic beats has to be belabored explanation sequence wherein two characters we’ve barely met (a French inspector and the Zoe Kravitz character) deliver tedious dialogue explaining in overly intricate detail their backstories and motivations. Previously established Characters like Credence and supposed protagonist Newt Scamander watch on in unintentionally hilarious fashion. Couldn’t they have found a way to visually represent this backstory like they did with Hermione telling the Tale of the Three Brothers so we’re not just watching the camera dart from one close-up to another for five minutes? That might have required some imagination though and this is a production sorely lacking in that.
The lack of any characters who are even remotely interesting isn’t the only problem with The Crimes of Grindelwald, but considering how much of it is just focused on the backstories and mythos of these people, it’s probably the problem that ends up sinking this hole-ridden ship of a movie. Such an issue extends to Katherine Watterston’s Tina who’s sole characteristic in this feature is that she’s mad at Newt because she read a magazine article mistaken;y saying he was getting married. This is the entire motivation for the most prominent female character in a $200 million movie. Our titular villain Grindelwald is also a ridiculously monotonous non-entity of a villain. Johnny Depp is at least not as grating as he was in Mortdecai or Lone Ranger but he barely registers as a presence, menacing or otherwise. Characters talk about how seductive his words are but Depp plays Grindelwald like he just got woken up from a nap! When he gives a big speech at a rally of his in the climax, it’s like the world’s most drowsy TED Talk instead of a stirring demonstration of villainy. His lack of a concrete relationship or even the most tenuous connection to the horde of lead characters also means there’s no real emotional grounding for his dynamic with our heroes. He doesn’t even get to act all that wicked! What a failure of a baddie.
And then there’s Newt Scamander, who, much like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit movies, really feels like he’s on the sidelines far too much for someone who is supposed to be our protagonist. Maybe it’s for the best Newt isn’t a more active participant in the proceedings given that how much of a slog of a character he is, a flaw that isn’t helped by how Eddie Redmayne only has one note to give in his performance of the character, there’s no depth to be found in how he portrays Newt. More troublesome yet is that Newt is an obvious stereotype of people, like myself, on the Autism spectrum that breaks new ground for cinematic portrayals of people with behavioral traits associated with Autism by being a straight cis-gendered white guy who’s clueless with romance and whose social blunders are played for laughs at his expense. Newt frequently feels like a Sheldon Cooper clone escaped into a Harry Potter movie, an idea that’s awful conceptually and even worse in execution.
All these inert characters navigate a plot that’s constantly twisting itself into contrived knots to get to one big world-building reveal to the next. There’s little time to breathe or get to know the characters here between all of the big reveals that are supposed to make Harry Potter fans go gaga. Within this mess a plot is also a handful of action sequences that also suffer greatly from the lack of memorable characters. The day will come when director David Yates realizes Fantastic Beasts action sequences can be filmed in the daytime, but it is not this day as made evident by the amount of dimly lit and visually messy set pieces here. An opening scene of Grindelwald escaping captivity in a nighttime thunderstorm establishes the visually messy style of things to come and the rest of the action scenes are similarly dire in terms of camerawork, editing and visual clarity.
Worst of all, there’s no wonder, no awe, nothing to register on an emotional level to be found here in the action scenes or anywhere else! The Crimes of Grindelwald is far too assured that we’re all so invested in the world of Newt Scamander that we’ll just hop onboard for whatever narrative drivel and big reveals it plops down in front of the viewer, but you need to become invested in the characters before those big reveals can have any weight! There are no human beings in The Crimes of Grindelwald, just figures that can be shuffled about to fill out Harry Potter lore. Aside from the fact that the fantasy critters called Niffler’s are cute (the one laugh I got here was seeing one of the Niffler’s chasing some gold dust in the air in the background of a scene) and seeing Jessica Williams in a big budget movie for two seconds provides a momentary burst of “Oh hey, that’s cool”, Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindelwald is a never-ending slog to get through. Who knew the wizarding world I found so engrossing as a nine-year-old boy could be used for such listless storytelling?