There's a moment near the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald when I realised the scene I was watching could have been the second one in the movie. Instead, it was near the end, climactic and important. Yet it took so long to get here and everything that happened prior was so superfluous to the events unfolding, it dawned on me that the latest film in JK Rowling's Wizarding World simply wasn't up to par.
Directed by David Yates and written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second film in a proposed five-film series that began in 2016 with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That first movie had a lot of heavy lifting to do, introducing a whole new section of Rowling's franchise complete with characters, mythologies, creatures, and more.
It had so much to do, in fact, as long as it was entertaining, you could almost forgive it if it ultimately wasn't about much. (Which I did, giving it a positive review.)
With the sequel though, that's no longer an option. Things have been established. This needs to stand alone. It needs to have an interesting story with dynamic characters and only tangentially tease towards future films that may or may not happen. However, Rowling's script goes the opposite way. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is even less concerned with telling a concise, satisfying story than its predecessor.
What's worse is at almost every turn, it weaves in broad strokes created only to set up the next movie, few of which add to what's actually happening on screen.
Set several months after the end of the first film, The Crimes of Grindelwald is primarily about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being tasked by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
Credence is also being sought by the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), and several aurors (dark wizard hunters), including Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Throughout the film, those characters and stories intertwine to set battle lines for a large scale war between good and evil.
That war is not in this movie though. This movie is about physically finding Credence, which happens very easily all things considered, and then about finding out who Credence is. That's it. To set up that revelation, the film is overloaded with long exposition dumps filled with flashbacks, ethereal visions and misdirection. Those sections get very confusing at times, especially when you remember Credence was all but killed in the previous movie, a fact that's explained here by a few lines of throwaway dialogue.
That's the biggest tell that The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn't care about the movie you are watching. It's filled with odd, annoying coincidences or unexplained links that feel unnecessarily lazy. For example, at the end of the first film, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) had his memory erased.
But here, he and Queenie (Alison Sudol) randomly show up in London and break into Newt's house like nothing ever happened. When asked about it, a few lines of dialogue shrug off the seemingly huge fact that a magic spell didn't work as intended. Another such example is the way the film forces a wedge between Tina and Newt with a piece of fake news. Or Voldermort's snake Nagini (Claudia Kim) being introduced as a person for no other reason than to give Credence someone to talk to.
There's a convoluted subplot in place just to keep Dumbledore out of the action (likely for another movie). It even introduces a famous Harry Potter name like Nicolas Flamel (inventor of the sorcerer's stone, played here by Brontis Jodorowsky) for no other reason other than to wink at the audience.
So many things are either completely glossed over or obviously included only to set up a sequel, it's easy to forget the movie has plenty of great stuff in it. More so than even the last film, which itself had some cool things in it, The Crimes of Grindelwald has loads of incredible magic effects, dazzling new sets, and adorable (and terrifying) new beasts, as well as an avalanche of links back to the original Harry Potter franchise.
And when you're watching Newt solve a crime with wistful magic or taming a giant beast with a toy, it's easy to get lost in the meaningless moment. And yet, all of them are like sprinkles on an underwhelming sundae. Sure, they make it look good, and they may even taste good. But they go fast and work mostly to distract from the truth: that what's underneath is simply not good enough to stand on its own.
Once Rowling and Yates have shown enough chase sequences or wizard fights that they can finally stop spinning their wheels and explain who Credence is, it's a solid enough reveal that you'll walk out of the theatre semi-satisfied and curious where things go next. But ultimately, all the steps the film took to get there amount to so little, that feeling is as fleeting as its narrative.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is chapter two in a longer story that may look better once we see the rest — but, on its own, it fails to live up to its Harry Potter roots.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens November 16. The sequel is set for release November 2020.