Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a film that’s difficult to recommend even to die-hard Harry Potter fans. Yes, there are callbacks and it’s occasionally neat to return to the Wizarding World that J.K. Rowling created. But as a story that takes place within the Wizarding World, Crimes of Grindelwald is a total mess, packed with too many storylines that go almost nowhere, and new characters that fail to earn our interest at the expense of old characters we wanted to know better. Barely anything in the movie works, from David Yates’ tired direction to trying to bring back familiar names with little payoff for their re-introduction. Instead of expanding the Wizarding World, Crimes of Grindelwald makes it feel smaller than ever.
Six months after the events of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is being moved from prison in the U.S. to Europe when he escapes and makes his way to Paris. There, he and his cohorts plan to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whom Grindelwald believes can be used as a super-weapon of sorts. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic, which includes Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) and fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), is also looking for Credence. Also, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) wants his former pupil Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence. However, Newt is more intent on finding auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is also looking for Credence and encounters Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a wizard who—you guessed it—is also looking for Credence. As for Credence, he’s in a wizard circus where he befriends Nagini (Claudia Kim) and he’s looking for his birth mother. Finally, Jacob (Dan Fogler) is hanging out with Newt in the hopes that Newt’s search for Tina will lead Jacob back to Queenie (Alison Sudol).
That’s the majority of Crimes of Grindelwald: characters looking for other characters. That may serve as motive, but it’s not much of a plot because it doesn’t really tell us anything about these people. The Harry Potter books were packed with characters, but Rowling always had Harry, Ron, and Hermione as her anchors. In Crimes, she’s completely adrift with no character really having much in the way of an arc. Newt is ostensibly the protagonist, but he does nothing of consequence and neither does anyone else for that matter other than Grindelwald, who basically just wants to divide the Wizarding World into pureblood wizards and everybody else. The stakes of such prejudice may be obvious from what we see in the real world, but they seem to have little or no impact on most of the characters.
Crimes of Grindelwald is a movie that’s over two hours long and yet almost nothing of consequence happens. The biggest “reveals” are hackneyed trash, resting more on coincidence than any real connections. In this way, Rowling has imitated George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels by making her world smaller. It’s fine to tell a story that happened before the main story, but every time you drop in a character like Nicolas Flamel (the eponymous sorcerer of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or Nagini (a maledictus, a woman cursed to permanently become a snake, and the future pet of the villainous Voldemort), then it makes the storytelling reliant on references rather than expanding the world itself. Maybe these characters will be important in a future Fantastic Beasts, but they fail to prove their value in this installment.
It’s possible that when all five movies of Fantastic Beasts are out, Crimes will look like a more important entry, but these aren’t chapters in a book. They’re connected films that still need to stand on their own merits. Crimes of Grindelwald lacks those merits. It doesn’t make the characters any richer, it doesn’t introduce anyone we want to know better, and its major reveals come off as trite and pedestrian. Even the argument that the film is trying to further a thematic narrative about the Trump era and Brexit come up short because Grindelwald isn’t notably different than Voldemort. Villains like this have always existed in our history, and outside of a few choice nouns, Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t feel particularly immediate.
Even the thrill of being in the Wizarding World is diminished as Yates doesn’t seem to have much else to bring to the table. He’s been directing these movies since 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and this series desperately needs a fresh pair of eyes. There are some nice bits of production design and some of the new beasts are fun, but overall Yates’ approach has grown stale, especially when he’s not working from strong material like he was with the Harry Potter movies. For a movie that takes place in 1927 and spans from New York to London to Paris, there’s very little that feels vibrant or exciting.
I don’t know who says “No” to J.K. Rowling, but if that person even exists, they need to step forward. Crimes of Grindelwald is a bloated disaster where even walking through the Wizarding World isn’t enough when that world now feels so shallow and ill-defined. It’s almost impressive that there’s a movie that’s 135 minutes long that accomplishes almost nothing, and it bodes poorly for the remainder of the Fantastic Beasts franchise if this is what’s supposed to stand as a proper story. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was a make-or-break movie for this franchise, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that this series is broken.