Easily one of the worst big-budget franchise films of the year, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an incomprehensible disaster on just about every level.
In a bizarre coincidence, I found myself watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald just a couple of hours after Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Those films might not seem to have much in common, but you’d be surprised. Both are misguided prequels to beloved franchises whose creators have swapped storytelling for tacky self-indulgence. Both are devoted to reinforcement of a brand identity, mistaking theme for implausible worldbuilding contrivance and narrative for dry exposition. Both seem to profoundly misunderstand their own audience and appeal, and both inexplicably believe that an overabundance of dorky fan-service minutiae somehow constitutes worldbuilding. The key difference is that The Phantom Menace is a lot better.
Relative to expectations, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald might be the worst film of the year. It’s certainly the most masturbatory. It encapsulates everything wrong with continuity-driven big-budget franchise-filmmaking, and the only vague concession it makes to the appeal of a shared cinematic universe is having all the characters we don’t care about be closely or distantly related to those we do. And sometimes everyone gets in a big circle and angrily reads the Pottermore archives out loud. I wish I was joking, but that’s literally how all the film’s big “mysteries” are revealed to the audience.
Not that it even matters. The “hero” is ostensibly still Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the human embodiment of an indifferent shrug who whispers most of his lines to the ground, but even then only because he’s going to write a Hogwarts textbook one day. You could remove him from the plot of this film completely and nothing would really be lost, and the same goes for Jude Law’s young and handsome Albus Dumbledore, who is conveniently sidelined for most of the film until a convenient MacGuffin is literally pulled from someone’s arse just in time for a sequel.
I made a point of paying rapt, faintly bewildered attention to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and I’d still be hard-pressed to tell you what any of it was actually about, although for the sake of posterity I suppose I’d better have a go. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the bleach-blond fascistic dark wizard villain, is looking for Credence (Ezra Miller), the super-powered amnesiac orphan from the first film, as he believes him to be the long-lost heir of some all-powerful mystical bloodline and thus the only wizard capable of killing Grindelwald’s childhood sweetheart and Most Powerful Wizard in the World™, Dumbledore.
I have to take a moment to point out that Grindelwald’s supremacist plan to rid the world of non-wizards (other than to keep a few around as “beasts of burden”) is analogous to the Final Solution, and a late sequence makes the correlation rather explicit by having him deliver a PowerPoint presentation with prophetic slides of the Blitz and Hiroshima and a strong implication that he’ll definitely stop the Holocaust if people side with him. Which, I suppose, is something of a step up from writing “purebloods are the best” on the back of bus seats, which is presumably what he was doing before.
Directly or tangentially related to this are characters you pretended to like and then forgot from the first film, such as Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is Newt’s would-be love interest by virtue of having eyes “like a salamander”. Newt has a brother named Theseus (Callum Turner) now, and he’s not an awkward nerd but a handsome and cool cop dude whose magic girlfriend Leta (Zoë Kravitz) has a familiar surname and also a partially unresolved childhood history with Newt. The immortal alchemist who invented the Philosopher’s Stone turns up for basically no reason, as does Nagini (Claudia Kim), Voldemort’s pet snake-to-be, who at this point is a Korean woman who can turn into a snake but only really does so at the urging of the impresario of a Parisian circus freak show. Somehow, none of this actually matters to the broader continuity or even really informs it in any meaningful sense, which makes one suspect that perhaps all that outrage about Nagini’s origin was a tad overblown.
If you’re wondering how Newt really fits into all this, so am I. Presumably so is he. Every now and again The Crimes of Grindelwald remembers it’s supposed to be about fantastic beasts and not just Wizard Hitler’s two-and-a-quarter-hour manifesto, so it’ll contrive an excuse for Newt to wrestle with a CGI beastie for five minutes and then resume the main plot as though none of that ever happened. There are a fair number of extremely expensive-looking computer-generated sequences that amount to nothing at all beyond facile spectacle and the whole thing is so cripplingly burdened by competing subplots, flashbacks and needlessly convoluted inheritance conspiracies that it moves at an agonising, breathless crawl. It really is a mess.
I can’t say I was expecting much. I wasn’t too keen on the first film and while I like the Harry Potter books and films as much as the next guy, I don’t care enough about the eccentricities of their mythology to be satisfied by a feature-length live reading of the Hogwarts Glossary of Terms. And I must say I was stunned to discover that a fine and respectable novelist such as JK Rowling should be so abysmal at writing screenplays, but then again I also blithely assumed we had three-act storytelling structure just about mastered by now, but this film convincingly argues otherwise. In the realm of franchise-building mediocrity a new low bar has been set, and for long-time fans of the franchise that aren’t just willing to accept any slop they’re fed with dutiful appreciation, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an insultingly incompetent disgrace.