Ever since I saw the first Harry Potter movie as a doe-eyed fourth grader I have seen all the movies in theaters and, even including 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, believe there wasn’t a single bad apple in the bunch. They’re all good or great in their own ways, each adding something new to love about J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, whether it be complex characters and storylines or simply the addition of a bevy of colorful, cuddly creatures. But now we have Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a movie that proves a few new magical creatures and wand waving can’t make up for an uninspired plot, incessant world-building/connecting and an abundance of forgettable characters, resulting in the first entry in this vast, imaginative series that is woefully unmagical.
Picking up some time after the conclusion of the first Beasts – wherein we find out Grindelwald had infiltrated the American Ministry of Magic by disguising himself as Colin Farrell, and was then revealed in his true form, played by Johnny Depp. Now the Depp Grindelwald is incarcerated, but soon the powerful dark wizard escapes with the use of trusty ol’ Polyjuice potion, a plot device now on par with the mask-switcheroos in the Mission: Impossible movies. What follows is a cluttered and rushed sequence that plays out like a child throwing action figures in the air purely to cause chaos. This is not a good start.
After he escapes, we are brought back into the world of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who only wants to take care of his assortment of wondrous magical creatures, one small area of this movie that provides awe and beauty. But soon he is drafted by a younger, spryer Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to help him track down Credence (Ezra Miller), the sad, tortured character from the first movie who had been repressing his magical abilities to terrifying effect. He is being sought by Grindelwald, and Dumbledore can’t go against him himself for reasons tied to their romantic, complicated past.
Newt is hesitant to accept but sets out on the journey once he finds out a woman he very much likes – Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) – is on the case in Paris as well. With the returning Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) in tow (searching for his girlfriend, Queenie Goldstein) we go with them on this adventure to find Credence and figure out the mystery of his true nature. The problem with that is the movie and its script (from Rowling herself) fails to validate why this is an adventure worth going on, and a mystery worth solving. The crux lies in all the new characters we are introduced to, almost none of them worthwhile to invest in.
There is Zoe Kravitz as Leta Lestrange, Callum Turner as Newt’s uptight brother Theseus, William Nadylam as Yusuf Kama and Claudia Kim as Nagini, the human form of the snake that later serves as a pet to Voldemort in the main Potter series. Yeah, even she gets an arc in this series because what the hell is going on!? All of these characters are supposed to add a layer to this prequel series, but in some sort of cruel game of “You’ll have to wait for the next one” none of them manage to bring anything to the table. Theseus is the bland government figure, Nagini merely accompanies Credence and has all but three lines, Kama means to explain a grand mystery and Leta is portrayed as a tragic figure who means to redeem herself in the end (which I won’t spoil). All of these characters have arcs that are crammed in, and the filmmakers (and no doubt, the studio) are hoping we’ll be invested simply because they exist in the Wizarding World. Every one of these actors has such a wilted energy you would think the paycheck in their pockets was weighting them down, and the characters have as much depth as a single entry in a Wizarding World coffee table compendium.
They all distract from the characters I actually wanted to see on screen, namely Newt, Tina, Dumbledore and Grindelwald. The former two are charming as ever, but this series doesn’t know what to do with them. There is a budding romance, and they get a pretty adorkable moment when Newt tries to compliment her on her eyes, which he says are like a salamander, the most romantic compliment he can give. Then there’s the charismatic Dumbledore, the best character in the whole series brought to life by Law with style and an abundance of wit. He has the best of both Richard Harris’ and Michael Gambon’s takes on the legendary wizard, having a knack for Harris’ careful, wise manner of speaking and Gambon’s overall energy and sense of humor. I want to see much, much, much, much more of him than his 10 minutes of screen time here.
Then there’s Depp’s Grindelwald, who gets about 15 minutes of time despite his name being, you know , in the title. In that time he does commit a few crimes, true, but mostly shows up randomly where the story needs him to – with no rhyme or reason – simply to move things forward and say something creepy. I quite like Depp as the imposing, ominous Grindelwald but, like Dumbledore, he has to sit on the back burner until he can shine in the finale. There’s no urgency in his goal so therefore there’s no urgency for anyone to stop him, and so everything comes to a grinding halt the more time goes between his scenes.
Throw all this in with the returning characters who have nothing of value to do but add to the “shock” of the finale, like Jacob, Queenie and Credence, and we have a movie that struggles to prove its worth beyond setting up some character dynamics for this planned five-movie saga. There are angles that come in to play to answer where Credence comes from (Miller has nothing to do in this movie other than ask “Who am I?” almost literally), but I couldn’t care less about any of it. I don’t care about Leta Lestrange, I don’t care about who Credence is related to, I don’t care about any of what takes up most of the time in this movie. This is the first Wizarding movie that is a total chore to watch from start to finish.
Maybe it would all be worth it if the characters were engaging (50% get a big fat “nope”), or if the action was thrilling. Aside from some moments with magical creatures like the Nifler (we see them in baby form, which is too cute to handle) and a few shining performances there’s little to find entertaining in the movie, with all the action meshed into massive set pieces that find characters standing in place as fire and chaos roam around them. It’s a textbook example in the class of “How to Not End Your Blockbuster’s Climax.”
As a fan of these movies I could go on and on about what worked and the more that didn’t, but I can whittle it down to one major takeaway: This movie made me feel cold. You’re supposed to leave the Wizarding World having gone on a magical adventure, but this entry is an aimless, mostly unmagical slog that feels motivated by brand extension than by love and imagination. Worse yet, this doesn’t feel like a movie made by David Yates – the man behind most of the series’ entries – or written by Rowling – the woman behind the whole damn thing. It feels made by two people who didn’t know how to approach the material and what made it special. At one point we get a crane shot of Hogwarts coming over a mountain, with a reprise to John Williams’ classic score from the original movies. Several people in the audience (myself included) got noticeably excited here more than anywhere else, including during the final “twist”. My hope is they’ll go back to what makes these movies special, and save the kind of rushed character info from Grindelwald for brief biographies on Pottermore.com