Not since The Hobbit has a studio franchise spin-off so thoroughly dropped the ball.
The similarities between Peter Jackson’s 9-hour pilgrimage to the Lonely Mountain and the Fantastic Beasts trilogy, two in with The Crimes of Grindelwald, are immediate and obvious. Both series take a charming little throwaway book, J. K. Rowling’s 2001 Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the real-life rendition of Hogwarts’ zoological textbook, and mount them on the rack, stretching them out until the joints give out. It’s gruesome textual torture. Close your eyes and whisper along with me: disapparate, disapparate, disapparate.
Like An Unexpected Journey, Fantastic Beasts started with a flawed, awkward attempt at a jaunty alternative to the heavy conclusions of the father franchise, even while tying in with established, well-loved bits of mythos. Director David Yates did his best to kill the fun with stagey direction and whole sections where he seemed to literally forget to put a score in, and he’s back for the sequel with Rowling on screenwriting duties, as the film tries to shift into dramatically darker material with Johnny Depp’s existential threat to the Wizarding World, a world we know turns out more of less intact because we all read The Philosopher’s Stone.
Whatever your feeling on the standard of writing in the Harry Potter books, Rowling excelled at credible world-building and balancing individual character arcs with detailed, long-term plotting. And it is in these areas that her return to the well fails so spectacularly.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is full of characters you don’t really care about talking hurriedly and excitedly about events which you don’t really understand. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in England, banned from international travel after all the New York hubbub the first time round. But he’s brought back into the fray by Jude Law’s dashing young Dumbledore, to help in the fight against Grindelwald (Depp), a powerful pure-blood who wants to lead his magical comrades to their rightful domination of the Muggles. Think Voldemort as a middle-aged creeper in punk boots. Dumbledore’s the only one strong enough to take on Grindelwald, but he can’t for super convenient plot reasons, so it has to Newt.
Everyone’s back, relocated from Art Deco flapper New York to the more or less anonymous Paris: Katherine Waterston’s Auror Tina, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and now-boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler). There’s also Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), civil servant at the Ministry of Magic, and his fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who has a lingering feelings for Newt.
Yates seems to have instructed his performers to hide from the camera. Redmayne plays his hero as a shirking, Paddington-style innocent, dialogue dripping from his mouth like water from an ill-fitted faucet. Ezra Miller is particularly absent as Credence, a powerful novice wizard whose rumoured genealogy makes him a valuable ally for Grindelwald. There is so much fussing over Credence’s origins, but Rowling gives him nothing to do, no way in for the audience to connect with his struggle. She has another character point-blank ask him what he wants just so he can answer: “to know who I am!”.
The last twenty minutes is an inert head-scratching mess of backstory, genealogy and exposition, where a bunch of characters literally stand in a tiny corridor talking at eachother so we can get flashbacks. Rowling’s fussy, bitty script means it is frequently unclear what is happening and why.
Grindelwald, who has as much charisma as the first film’s baddie, which was, you may recall, a big soot cloud that’s invisible for half the film, is in Paris preparing to do… something. Turns out his ultimate plan is to drape some black sheets over the city like a moody house painter and make a speech to his followers. A speech. And when allegiances start switching and identities are revealed, nothing makes an impact because nothing dramatically firm has been established.
So deficit in energy and momentum, Crimes of Grindelwald might be the least engaging big studio film of the year.
Crime’s the word alright.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out on wide release.