Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, whilst still somewhat of a love letter to the Harry Potter franchise it was born from, suffers from middle-child syndrome: it's forgettable. It is so busy setting up for things that will take place in the rest of the five-film storyline in the Fantastic Beasts saga nothing of note actually happens in this film, so it falls flat as a standalone and has no real storyline of its own.
The Crimes of Grindelwald, which clocks in at 133 minutes long, is set soon after the near-catastrophic events that occurred in New York in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You know the general shape of things to come already: dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) wants to make wizardkind the ruling class of the world, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is going to try to stop him at the behest of Albus Dumbledore (a sadly underused Jude Law).
The film’s trailers told us far in advance that key players from the previous film, like Jacob Kawolski (Dan Folger), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), would be making a return to Newt’s life - just not how. The “how” of Jacob Kawolski’s return falls short of anyone’s expectations, by the way, albeit fairly sweetly.
Grindelwald, who manages a thrilling escape from Ministry holding at the start of the film, heads to France, where he puts in place the set pieces needed to lure Credence to his cause. Depp’s Grindelwald is not as overtly menacing as Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort but he does prove to be more quietly dangerous, convincing witches and wizards to pledge allegiance to him in far quieter and (ultimately) more sinister ways. Sadly, Depp doesn’t quite have the charisma for the role - or, at least, spends so much of the film talking down to henchmen that he is forced to carry entire scenes by himself.
There lies one of the problems with The Crimes of Grindlewald - the main characters spend a lot of time apart and don’t get to play off one another. The core quartet (Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and Newt) don’t actually spend any real time together, and we don’t see sisters Tina and Queenie share any scenes at all which is a shame. Particularly since the dynamics between the characters was one of the best elements of the first film. Jacob still provides most of the laughs, but considering the darker tone this film takes, there aren’t that many.
Credence, on a mission to find his birth mother, ends up joining a travelling circus that has set up shop in Paris, where he has become close to Nagini (Claudia Kim) - a woman with a blood curse that will eventually turn her permanently into a snake. Yep, that Nagini, the one who will meet her untimely death at the hands of Neville Longbottom. Tremendously little was known about Nagini’s character and backstory before the film - and little has changed with this film. The other new characters introduced in The Crimes of Grindlewald, apart from Dumbledore, aren’t very fleshed-out. Instead, this film relies on pre-existing Harry Potter lore and overly-convoluted plot twists to give them some modicum of depth. For example, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) is mostly defined by her relationships with both Newt and his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), and has a backstory that needs a lot of spelling out to make sense.
And then there’s the reveal of Credence’s true heritage, which, despite a fairly heavy-handed hint in the final third of the film this writer missed, will leave Potterheads scratching their heads.
The first Fantastic Beasts film was a glorious explosion of, well, fantastical beasts running amok in New York, both in the No-Maj world and in the American wizarding community. The Crimes of Grindlewald, though there are some new magical creatures featured, misses out on exploring the French magical world because it is too focused on setting up the plot, one that that is still yet to truly unfold, in the next few films.
Having said that, there is plenty here to love about The Crimes of Grindlewald. The cinematography, though still insistently washed-out and faded, is as stunning as ever - with a few point-of-view shots almost uncomfortably intimate. Redmayne’s Newt is still charmingly awkward. A few scenes set in Hogwarts will thrill Potterheads who miss the school, as will the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of a younger Minerva McGonagall. Also, the Mirror of Erised, seen in The Philosopher’s Stone, makes a reappearance, Nicolas Flamel, played to literally-age-old perfection by Brontis Jodorowsky, has a laugh-out-loud scene with Jacob in the middle of the film.
Ultimately, fans of the original series will still want to watch Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and will still enjoy it. The action still takes place in J.K. Rowling’s beautifully imagined world, and many of the characters are ones we’ve either grown up with, or grown to love over the past two years. However, The Crimes of Grindelwald is lacks the narrative focus and conclusive ending needed for it to stand on its own as a film to recommend to non-Potter geeks.