J K Rowling, whatever her faults, has tremendous form when it comes to intricately planned plots and reveals. The Fantastic Beasts series, with this unintelligible second outing, is at risk of exposing her as more of an improviser than previously thought.
The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with a series of changes to seemingly sensible conclusions from the end of its tepid predecessor. “No-Mag” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler with far less license to charm) finds his memory is un-modified, his beloved Queenie (Alison Sudol) is quite suddenly unsympathetic, and heroic Tina (Katherine Waterson) sidelined depressingly.
We are then treated to an unwelcome cavalcade of new characters, almost none of them clearly introduced, and with the barest efforts made to showcase their individuality. The logic of the series’ first film establishing a cast, only to throw them out the window for a list of nobodies brought in only to be killed in an hour’s time, is utterly baffling.
The driving plot, such as it is, concerns the rampant Grindelwald, played frustratingly decently by a piquant Johnny Depp (oh, for this to have tanked his career!). He is gathering followers and tempting wizards to dark ways against the (very, very distant) backdrop of the Muggle world approaching World War II. Bizarre protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) returns to semi-reluctantly enter the fray, basically in the search of some skirt, on the orders of a Gambon-impersonating Jude Law as Dumbledore.
Redmayne’s performance is as odd as ever. A more conventional approach to Newt’s character would surely, inevitably, have led to a more straightforwardly relateable and likeable hero. Instead, his shifty, twitchy look is cemented, as Newt’s motivation gets further and further from having anything to bloody do with actual beasts, fantastic or otherwise. His presence in the film feels as neutral as he professes his cowardly politics to be.
So, nasty Grindelwald is rallying his troops, and our host of characters, whether or not we are conscious of their names, are all entangled. Lita Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) are Ministry aurors, hunting down the platinum-blonde baddie. Ezra Miller’s troubled Credence again tries to find his identity all the while.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is convolutedly plotted and unsatisfyingly planned. Twists come without the iron-cast, series-long logic that Rowling is fond of, and come to feel cheap in the extreme, none more so than a final grand reveal that will take some serious explaining in the next entry.
Returning Potter-master David Yates again directs, but his suitability for the series is looking increasingly like it peaked with the two Deathly Hallows films – this is a film without a visual identity, even with some impressive visual effects throughout. Magic is starting to feel more mundane than ever in Rowling’s cinematic universe, and no amount of CGI fire-beasties can solve this conundrum.
The Fantastic Beasts saga is newly floundering with this entry. It has failed, once more, to justify its own existence, and will surely only convince those fans who are so desperate for more Hogwarts magic that they’ll take any surface razzmatazz, no matter its hollow core.