Warning: spoilers ahead for the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Even in their earliest, most child-friendly days, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were never particularly simplistic. From the beginning, they introduced a crowded cast and a busy, messy world. And while her characters often fell into basic stereotypes or seemed more like story pegs and protagonist accessories than like people, there were certainly a lot of them. It was an early hint that as she kept expanding the world, she was going to go deep into its history and explore how the connections between people in the past affected the series’s present and future.
The latest film set in Rowling’s Potterverse — Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — focuses on lineage and links more than most, and the plot mostly revolves around parentage and dark family secrets. Just as the Harry Potter books matured and darkened over time, this latest prequel takes a significant step back from its predecessor’s wacky magic-animal CGI shenanigans and heads in a grimmer direction. But while it feels like the series is gradually working on its wild tonal mismatches and all-audiences approach, it’s also headed deep into superfan territory. It’s hard to imagine anyone but hardcore Potterheads getting emotionally involved in this film’s convoluted plotting and ancestral reveals.
Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard who is obsessed with collecting and protecting magical animals, especially the ones other people in his wizarding world regard as pests or dangers. A year after the events of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts, Newt is back in London, and he has been banned from international travel due to his involvement in a series of destructive events in America. The Ministry of Magic, which oversees wizards and their interactions with the magic-free (or “Muggle,” or “no-maj”) world, wants him to join their ranks and help them hunt down the dangerous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). But Newt has no interest in taking sides, especially since that would involve working directly with his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and other people he considers bullies and bureaucrats.
Meanwhile, Grindelwald has escaped his American prison and is rallying wizards who sympathize with his desire to take over both the wizarding and mundane worlds. His plot this time around centers on manipulating and befriending Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the supposed orphan revealed in the last film as the host to an immensely powerful, dangerous creature that emerges when he’s sufficiently upset. Grindelwald’s plans mostly come down to “Tell Credence who his actual family is,” but it’s hard to tell that from the way the plot unfolds, with seemingly endless characters and complications. Among other central figures, Theseus’ fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) is looking for her own family truths, powerful mind-reader Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) wants the freedom to marry her Muggle boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Queenie’s sister Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) is still trying to hunt Credence down. And then there are even more fringe characters butting into the action, including cursed snake-woman Nagini (Claudia Kim) and French-African wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who’s attempting to right an old family wrong.
A surprising number of these personal plots come to exactly nothing in Crimes of Grindelwald, apart from a long series of end-film reveals that tangle up the truth just in time to untangle it again. A great deal of the film just involves characters looking for each other and meeting or parting in a rush between action set pieces. There’s a forced sort of busyness to the film, an attempt to keep everyone hopping and frantic as they head toward a final meetup where Grindelwald… gives a speech.
For longtime Harry Potter addicts, there’s certainly some fan-candy here worth having, from the eventual reveal about Credence’s bloodline to some teaching scenes involving a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). And then there’s the appearance of Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky, son of surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky). Flamel was a deep background character in Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, and his arrival here seems both inevitable and like an in-joke for readers in the know. (It’s the equivalent of Marvel Studios’ habit of referencing obscure comics characters in background jokes in its blockbuster movies.)
The problem is that Flamel doesn’t really have anything to do in the story — an issue that applies to a lot of Crimes of Grindelwald’s characters. Grindelwald is surrounded with flunkies with no personality or purpose. The decision to rewrite Nagini as a shape-changing woman, when she was previously seen as a snake companion to Harry Potter villain Voldemort, kicked off angry online protests, especially when a South Korean actor was cast in the role. But it seems more telling that she spends a lot of time on-screen with nothing to contribute to the story except pained looks and the occasional ineffectual protest. Jacob, last seen at the end of Fantastic Beasts having his experiences of the wizarding world obliterated, is back for more magic adventures. Apparently, the memory wipe didn’t take for silly reasons that hand-wave away his beautifully melancholy farewell moment. But once again, he’s just loud set dressing, perpetually at odds with Queenie but unable to make a difference for her as anything but an excuse for action. There are a lot of moving parts in this film, and too many of them are moving without purpose.
But a lot of the problems are simply due to the fact that this entire movie is still throat-clearing for a conflict to come. Planned as the second of five Fantastic Beasts movies, Crimes of Grindelwald is just out to put a few more pieces on the board for later fights and to move the existing pieces around a bit. Almost none of the actual action scenes matter. At one point, there’s an entire elaborate infiltration mission leading to a big fight-and-chase-and-fight sequence, all so a handful of characters can learn that the MacGuffin they’re chasing is, effectively, in a different castle. The story is more dignified and tonally consistent than in the last film — Redmayne never has to do another butt-waggling Erumpet seduction dance — but much of it plays out with just as little weight as Fantastic Beasts’ silliest moments.
At least that weightless action looks exciting on the screen. After making five previous Harry Potter franchise films, director David Yates has become a known quantity by this point. The computer-generated critters in this film are well-realized and eerily solid, and the chases and confrontations they provoke feel real. At this point, Rowling’s wizarding world has its own distinctive look and feel, and the latest installment in its run fills out its space even further, with more Niffler treasure-stealing adventures, a short but wild ride on a Kelpie that looks like a giant kelp horse, and the Zouwu, a giant snarling cat with a ruffled tail that looks like a whole troupe of Brazilian flag-dancers on parade. There’s plenty of big fantasy spectacle going on in this film.
And oddly enough, Crimes of Grindelwald ends up feeling less emotionally dark and painful than Fantastic Beasts, in spite of everything Grindelwald does to raise the narrative stakes. Depp’s starey-eyed villain posturing comes with some pointedly callous murder, and his entire plan involves escalating the threat of all-out wizard-versus-Muggle war. But that’s a pretty thin threat since this is a prequel, and anyone who cares about these films likely already knows everything about how the story ultimately plays out. And apart from Leta, who spends the film delving into a personal tragedy, most of the characters seem less wracked with paralytic misery than they did in the previous film. The growing danger has given returning characters like Newt, Tina, and Jacob a purpose outside of their personal obsessions, and while the film struggles to find a meaningful focus, the protagonists at least feel more defined and energized than they did before.
That’s certainly a necessary step for a series that still has three more movies to go and currently isn’t proceeding at a particularly propulsive rate. For the serious fans who this series is meant for, the promise of at least six more hours of Fantastic Beasts action likely means a lot more thrilling beasts, barriers, and beats to explore. Everyone else may find that all the little personal bits of character business and frantic complications aren’t much of a substitute for a clear and compelling plot with a single meaningful protagonist. For all the perils of Chosen One stories like the Harry Potter books, at least they have a central focus. By taking the focus off of Newt and putting it on the vast world of his background characters, Crimes of Grindelwald takes a few troubled steps away from any sense of a center.