There came a certain point in George Lucas’s career, as he began writing prequels to his Star Wars films and tinkering with reedited “special editions” of the originals, when he finally lost all grasp on narrative momentum and became a glorified encyclopedia editor. Story took a backseat to explanation, and characters seemed to exist only to be related to future characters in some way. With the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s safe to say that the Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is swerving dangerously close to George Lucas territory.
This is a film that exists primarily to answer questions nobody would have ever thought to ask about a series of books that already told a very complete story. It’s been dressed up as a sequel in the Fantastic Beasts series, starring the squirrelly and introverted Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and set in the 1920s. But that subtitle, The Crimes of Grindelwald, has all the sizzle of an appendix entry and says everything one might need to know going in. Directed by David Yates, the movie is less a fantasy epic and more a data download, giving out just enough background information to keep fans sated until the next Fantastic Beasts drops in 2020.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is not short (it runs a healthy 134 minutes), and yet it feels like barely anything happens in it. The movie isn’t lacking in characters, adding several newcomers to the already robust Fantastic Beasts ensemble, and yet nobody gets much to do. Perhaps worst of all, it retains the same washed-out aesthetic as the last movie, sticking to a color palette of dull limestone despite supposedly being set in a decades-old realm of magic and wonder.
When Yates came aboard the Wizarding World train in 2007 for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he brought with him a surprisingly delightful visual sense (I still think fondly of that Voldemort–Dumbledore duel that ended in Cornelius Fudge’s image being shredded with glass). But when it comes to Fantastic Beasts, Rowling is the sole auteur. Her work is no longer just being adapted—she’s the only credited screenwriter, pouring a wealth of ideas and lore about her expansive universe into a mold that doesn’t have the space for it. There’s probably a sweet, winsome movie that could be made about Newt Scamander’s adventures with magical creatures in the roaring ’20s, but this film is concerned with far more than that.
Specifically, it’s worried about Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), whose very existence was the shocking twist at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts. A sort of wizard Hitler and proto-Voldemort, Grindelwald was largely a background bit of lore from the Harry Potter books who is now being fleshed out. Unfortunately, Depp has neither the energy nor the charisma for the role. Grindelwald is supposed to be a magnetic demagogue, one gathering strength around the world by preaching a radical manifesto of wizard supremacy over the non-magical. But he just looks like a knockoff You Know Who, a similarly skeletal, high-cheekboned monster who delivers every line with a practiced sort of drawl.
As the film begins, Grindelwald escapes from prison and moves to Paris; much of his arc involves selecting the proper palatial apartment and gathering the right balance of henchmen. He’s on the lookout for Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the unsettled magical orphan of the last Fantastic Beasts, whose powers have grown. Credence, meanwhile, is trying to solve the mystery of his parentage, surrounded by rumors that he’s a long-lost relative of a mighty wizarding family; he’s accompanied by Nagini (Claudia Kim), a circus performer who occasionally turns into a snake and, as any Potter fan can guess, will permanently shift into that state one day.
Into all of this wanders Scamander, a magical zoologist with a suitcase full of bizarre creatures. His pals Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) are also in tow, as is his brooding old flame Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz). He’s been tasked with hunting Grindelwald by his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (an underused Jude Law), who is posted up at the famous school of Hogwarts. Though the twitchy, quiet Scamander hardly seems suited to the task of combatting a legendary evil wizard, that’s exactly the message of Rowling’s grand arc: It’s far too easy to overlook the strengths of the world’s gentler souls.
That’s a fine point to make, and Scamander remains a fascinatingly unusual hero for such a blockbuster film series, given that he’s not really given to confrontation. But Redmayne’s rather lovely performance is drowned out by the constant churn of backstory around him. Rowling’s terrific skill with world building doesn’t translate too well to the screen here, where endless info-dumps serve only to gum up the action further. It quickly becomes apparent that whatever grand showdown one might be anticipating between Grindelwald and Dumbledore is being saved for a later film.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is mostly table-setting, which can’t sustain an entire movie—even one serving a fan base as passionate as this one. In film history, there are a few gloomy middle entries that work despite lacking a real beginning or end (such as The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), but it’s a difficult trick to pull off. This Fantastic Beasts sequel doesn’t come close, instead throwing out a bunch of story morsels (including one final twist that is truly hard to comprehend) and hoping it’ll be enough to tide audiences over until the next entry. From a business perspective, that just might work. But as a new part of Rowling’s expanding canon, The Crimes of Grindelwald is tragically underwhelming.