Watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second in a planned series of Harry Potter prequels, is a bit like watching a “previously on” recap of a season of television, except there are no actual episodes to go back to and watch in full. (The film is about as cheap- and plain-looking as a just-O.K. big-budget show, too.) Scattered, confusing, and haunted by past grandeur, Crimes of Grindelwald perhaps marks the landmark moment when, alas, the magic finally flickers out.
Just as Game of Thrones began to sputter after it exhausted its rich source material, Grindelwald is far enough beyond the scope of J.K. Rowlings original world—while trying desperately to entwine itself with it—that it can only gesture (or is it a flail?) toward what once, not too long ago, made these stories so special. Which is troubling, given that Harry Potter stalwart David Yates (responsible for one of the best films in the original run) directed the thing, and Rowling herself wrote the script. If even they cant figure out how to expand this narrative in any comprehensible or engrossing way, then what possible future could the whole enterprise have?
There are ribbons of old Rowling running throughout the film, mysteries from the past mingling with the present, teased out through callbacks and gradually meted out reveals. But Crimes of Grindelwald tries to do entirely too much with no foundational text, so even diehards willing to follow Pottermore and various fan wikis to the ends of the Internet may find themselves hungry for further clarity. Maybe this should have been a TV series, if Rowling wanted to encompass so much—or she could have written a novel and then waited for a sufficient adaptation. As a rushed film, though, Crimes of Grindelwald is almost an offense, taking fan devotion so for-granted that it serves us raw food.
The first Fantastic Beasts was a surprisingly moving delight, its story of looming fascism arriving just after the 2016 presidential election and offering up a fighting spirit ensconced cozily in Rowlings alterna-Earth of wizards and witches and cuddly/gross C.G.I. creatures. Alarmingly little of that charm, or galvanizing energy, survived the journey to the sequel, replaced instead by an oddly muted, mumbling tone—dour and quiet and fatally inert. Every actor, so many of them sparkling in the previous film (and in many other films), seems bored and distracted and just as at sea as us in the audience. Yatess ugly action scenes are blurry messes, one in particular so imperceptible in its Stygian hues that you might as well close your eyes. (Reader, I was tired, and almost did.)
In order to take the pressure off of the first films hero, Eddie Redmaynes fluttery-sweet animal enthusiast Newt Scamander, Crimes of Grindelwald badly strains itself into an ensemble piece. Some only alluded-to figures from the original books are wedged in, and there are so many peculiar close-ups of seemingly random extras that I started to wonder if a bunch of people had won cameos in some kind of contest. The result of this jumble of names and faces is that every story line and character—from Zoë Kravitzs forlorn Leta Lestrange to Ezra Millers confused Credence Barebone (cmon, Jo)—is rendered thin and hurried.
Rowling attempts one of her classic grand convergences at the end—one of those shivery heres-how-past-has-been-informing-present resolves that gave her books such pleasing heft and depth—but it falls hideously flat. We barely know who anyone is or what theyre doing, so who cares if theyre all connected somehow?
Though her zesty moxie has been confoundingly dialed down for the sequel, Katherine Waterston, as dogged American Auror Tina Goldstein, at least has one winning scene with Redmayne—a glimmer of a nicer movie thats otherwise hidden behind the murk. For those somehow unaware, Aurors are basically the F.B.I. or police of the wizarding world, and their use of state-sanctioned violence comes into play in Crimes of Grindelwalds tortured political schema.
Early in the film, Scamander says, “I dont take sides”; the films project, if it has one, concerns Newt waking up to the fact that rigid neutrality is not an option when civilization is on the line. Which, sure. I guess “if youre not with us, youre against us” is a viable stance to take in Donald Trumps America—I mean, Grindelwalds Europe. But the films allusions to the rise of real-life fascism are facile, partly because weve seen them before, not just in the first Fantastic Beasts, but in the whole remembered arc of Voldemorts ascent to terrible power.
The Fantastic Beasts series is building toward wizard of all wizards Albus Dumbledores big showdown with the new films titular menace, dimly detailed in the last Harry Potter book. I guess thats meant to be exciting. Its hard to invest in those stakes, though, when we know that just after Grindelwalds inevitable defeat, there will come another hissing megalomaniac looking to purify the wizard race and enslave the non-magical. Its curiously repetitive, as if George Lucas had made a prequel series not about the origins of Darth Vader, but of some other freak in a different mask who knew some of the same people Vader did, just when they were younger and played by Jude Law. I guess theres an argument to be made that Rowling is reminding us that dangerous political ideology never really dies. And, sure, history does repeat itself. But it usually waits longer than the studio green-light process.
That said, Im enamored enough of the whole Potter mythology that I probably would have happily sat through this whole familiar saga had any of it made a lick of sense (or satisfying nonsense). Or had it been articulated in a register sprightlier or more engaging than this grim exercise in franchise developments dazed, enervated murmur. Speaking of dazed murmurs: I suppose Im obligated to mention that Grindelwald is played by Johnny Depp, whom the dutiful film crew was conscientious enough to shake awake just before Yates called “action.” They really neednt have bothered.