Among recent movie franchises, none have managed to capture the imagination and wonder of a generation quite like Harry Potter. Both the movies and the books they were inspired by are regarded as charming, wonderous and, of course, magical. As part of the spin-off movie series based on a Hogwarts textbook, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” had big shoes to fill to continue the legacy of such a beloved franchise. Unfortunately, the movie is an overwhelming failure, and its terrible showing diminishes the cherished reputation it attempts to rest on.
The movie picks up three months after the events of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016), with the dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) having escaped his confinement in New York. As protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits the Ministry of Magic, it is revealed that Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the powerful Obscurial from the previous film, is in fact alive and searching for his family in Europe. Grindelwald believes that Credence is the only one who can kill Grindelwald’s once-lover-turned-nemesis Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the Ministry is attempting to find Credence before Grindelwald does. Although Newt initially refuses to get involved, after Dumbledore approaches him and after Newt learns that his love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is also in Europe searching for Credence, he sets out to reunite with Tina and find Credence before Grindelwald does.
The biggest problem with “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is that it contains incredibly convoluted and confusing plots. The movie feels as though J.K. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, tried to cram as much as possible into two hours, and the resulting jumble is nonsensical and underdeveloped. The bare bones of the story make sense, but finding these bastions of logic amidst the rest of the film is a challenge.
As a brief overview, the film explores the complicated family history of Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) while returning to Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski’s (Dan Fogler) forbidden wizard-Muggle romance, also simultaneously tackling Newt and Tina’s romance while explaining Grindelwald’s past at the same time that Credence searches for his family, all while Newt and the Ministry search for Grindelwald. And there are still more subplots hidden among these larger points — the result is a messy story that all too often is forced to perform exposition dumps on the audience, rendering the plot entirely unappealing.
Harry Potter fans will probably recognize names such as Lestrange, Nagini and Dumbledore from the original films and books. The movie tries to lean into the history of the franchise with too much gusto, and its nostalgia feels forced, as if we are expected to like characters simply because of who they are or who they’re connected to. Indeed, nostalgia passes for characterization in “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and this makes most of the characters rather uninteresting.
Then, there are characters who have no business existing in the film — Nagini (Claudia Kim) and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) serve no purpose besides cramming more backstory into characters that frankly didn’t need or benefit from it, and they are underdeveloped as a result that they may as well be walking statues. Even when characters are done well — such as with the charmingly awkward Newt — the sheer amount of plot threads means they never have enough time to develop and lead the plot unfolding before them.
Another issue facing the movie is its lack of a coherent atmosphere. In short, it doesn’t feel like this installment belongs in the world of Harry Potter. Sure, there are witches and wizards, but the setting bounces around from New York to London to Hogwarts to London without firmly establishing any of these locations as distinct from one another. Even the magic feels different: Most of the spells are cast silently, which leaves them feeling undefined and vague. As much as the movie tries to announce that it is part of the wizarding world too, everything about it hinders this attempt at solidarity with the franchise’s past.
The core reason why “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a failure rests within the larger scope of the “Fantastic Beasts” series. J.K. Rowling, who is the primary writer behind the movie series, has stated that there will be five movies in total. This installment, when coupled with the whole series, might work better when sandwiched between the events of the first movie and those of the later films, but at present it feels decidedly unfinished. There are too many plot holes, inconsistencies and unrevealed details for the plot to succeed, and when combined with a cast of forgettable characters, the real crime here is that the movie wasn’t approached from a different angle.