Congratulations to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald for being the first flat-out terrible product of the Harry Potter expanded universe. The first two movies were not good movies, but no matter how sludgy and overlong Chris Columbus made them, they were salvaged by the truly magical origin stories they told. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a good play, but its stagecraft is so fantastic that it’s the most enjoyable five-hour bad play you’ll ever see. Chocolate frog cards are dumb fake holograms, but the chocolate is pretty good. J.K. Rowling’s Twitter feed is annoying, but she does sometimes roast Piers Morgan.
Even the first movie in this carefully planned brand extension, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, had its charms. It was hampered by expository duties but created a lively 1920s magical New York, and if hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) was a bit boring, the movie surrounded him with lively sidekicks, from a wisecracking baker (Dan Fogler) to a rampant erumpent. When I wrote about it back in 2016, I predicted that the “almost good” Fantastic Beasts would be “the worst of the Fantastic Beasts films.” When you’re wrong, you’re wrong!
Instead of building upon the story, characters, and conflicts that Fantastic Beasts torturously established, The Crimes of Grindelwald layers on further exposition and introduces yet more new characters. Even a character I thought was safely dead is once again alive! Remember poor Credence (Ezra Miller), the moody teen who sometimes turns into a screaming cloud of smoke? I swear he got disintegrated in the New York City subway at the end of the previous movie, but now here he is moping around Paris rooftops, trying to find his mom. In my opinion he should chill out; he’s got cheekbones to die for and a hot girlfriend who’s also a huge snake, which seems like a scenario out of any goth teen’s dreams.
The hunt for Credence occupies much of the busy plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald, as lots of wizards try to track him all across a magical Paris. Why? It’s revealed at the end, sort of—I didn’t really get it. But really all you need to know is that Grindelwald (Johnny Depp with Tilda Swinton’s haircut) wants Credence, and the Ministry of Magic wants Credence, and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) wants Credence, and a mysterious Senegalese-French wizard with magic pink eye (William Nadylam) wants Credence. Newt wants to find Credence too, so he hauls his enchanted suitcase full of beasts off to the City of Light.
By the way: Has any movie ever squandered its setting like this one does? Paris in the 1920s is a Top 5 city-decade combo of all time, right up there with Berlin in the 1970s and Xi’an in the 740s. Even late-period Woody Allen managed to make a lively movie about Paris in the 1920s. But there’s no sign of the artistic, social, or literary revolutions happening in the city at this exact time. Does Dan Fogler sing a duet with Cole Porter? Does Queenie the flapper flirt with Gertrude Stein? Does Picasso scandalize the art world by painting a nude Niffler? Nope. Total number of scenes in which Newt Scamander gets flustered by can-can girls: zero. Instead we get a boring magical circus and some nice views of Sacré-Coeur.
It’s of a piece with this movie’s dogged determination to make everything as dull as possible. Conversations drag, weighed down by portentous pauses and stares off into the distance. Director David Yates’ usual visual inventiveness has failed him this time around, starting with the movie’s first set piece, a midair prisoner escape that strives for Nolan-ian grandeur but just ends up muddy, repetitive, and absurd. J.K. Rowling’s screenplay is bizarrely humorless for a product of one of the funnier novelists around; the biggest laugh in our theater was the unintended one received by a reference to Dumbledore and Grindelwald, slash subjects turned canonical ship, as “closer than brothers.” Speaking of which: What studio exec signed off on clothing flamboyant fashion icon Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) in a gray waistcoat for an entire movie?
And Newt. Newt is so dull! “I don’t take sides,” he tells his brother (Callum Turner). Having no sides is certainly one characteristic of a totally flat character! Though his brother, an auror, is trying to stop Grindelwald’s evil plan, whatever the hell that is—his speeches certainly have fascist overtones but also he is maybe trying to stop World War II?—Newt remains interested only in his magical creatures, unworldly, stammering, and flustered. He gets a few flirty scenes with Tina (a dishwater Katherine Waterston) and a simmering crush on Leta, but otherwise he does not appear to care much about the events of the busy, messy movie surrounding him. It’s enough to make you miss square old Harry Potter, who at least was a jerk sometimes, and whose awe at the enchantment surrounding him was much more enjoyable to watch than Newt’s whimsical detachment. I’m beginning to suspect that the original story establishing this world might be a better work of art than the desperate cash grab of a megamillion-dollar media empire!
Look, I understand that we are in the era of the never-ending story—that anything good will be sucked to a husk by the maw of shareholder value, then dried to dust by fan exhaustion. But this particular bloodless entry in an already-enervating franchise, one with a charisma-free hero and a villain played by a creep, is really getting me down. I’ve long subscribed to the simple argument against fan outrage at reboots and rehashes: Just because someone remakes your favorite thing doesn’t mean they’re deleting the original. You can still go back and enjoy it anytime you want! But the unstoppable expansion of the Wizarding World is testing that theory. The strength of Rowling’s creation was not any one book or character or ancillary product but her grand idea that magic could be real and hidden all around us, and only a select few could know. What we loved most about the Harry Potter books, once, was that they made us dream of visiting this world. It’s a mark of how badly The Crimes of Grindelwald botches its mission that, for now at least, I don’t have any particular desire to visit the Wizarding World again.