Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler
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Back in 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a genuine piece of magic, a spectacle of cinema that found alohomora-ed unseen doorways in the universe of Harry Potter. But if that first outing announced J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world as the new Star Wars, this big-budget second prequel confirms it… by being the new Attack of the Clones.
The Crimes of Grindelwald does everything it can to prove its own blockbuster credentials, introducing countless new characters, revealing endless new plot twists, and digging up constant buried connections to every possible Harry Potter factoid, cameo or family tree that’s so much as been in the same room as a Rowling novel. It’s the kind of connective tissue that forms the bedrock of, say the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also the kind of fastidious, fan-pleasing approach to storytelling that results in Iron Man 2; the script spends so long trying to tie up loose ends that it forgets to tell an actual story, ducking, diving and weaving through its own mythology instead of enjoying the ride.
The story is both flimsy and absurdly over-complicated, picking up after the events of Fantastic Beasts, as Newt Scamander (Redmayne) is banned from travelling abroad. That doesn’t stop Dumbledore (Jude Law) from recruiting him to head to Paris, where Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has fled – after escaping Ministry of Magic custody – with Credence (Ezra Miller), the repressed teenage wizard cursed with a dangerous but powerful Obscurus. And so unofficial hero Newt, accompanied by official Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), hops across the continent, along with her Legilimens sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler). Magical chaos and conflict ensues, as Grindelwald assembles his followers in a bid for wizards and witches to rule the world, lording it over the impure normal folk and making magic great again.
For a family franchise to tackle such topical themes of racism and tolerance is commendable, even with the questionable casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. (He’s no match, it should be noted, for Colin Farrell, who effectively played the part in the first film, and makes Depp look like Johnny Rotten lost a fight with The Milkybar Kid.) But regardless of the person cast in the role, Grindelwald is a strangely dull figure, only really coming to life during a Trumpian rally, which takes place in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. The film’s decision to skirt over his famously intimate teen relationship with Dumbledore robs us of both an interesting bad guy and some emotional depth to the movie’s central dynamic – that, instead, has to come from the romance between Queenie and Jacob, neither of whom have the screen-time to make it work, or Leta Lestrange (a similarly short-changed Zoe Kratvitz) and her connection to Credence. Even Newt and Tina, the ostensible lead couple following the first film, only get a brief conversation about salamanders to really shine. After all, why focus on the talented ensemble whose chemistry enlivened the first Fantastic Beasts, when time can be spent needlessly name-dropping Voldemort’s snake, Nagini (Claudia Kim)?
The result is a strangely underwhelming affair, one that fights to surprise us with its inner workings of the Potter universe. But by the time Ezra Miller’s walking MacGuffin, Credence, comes into focus, suggestions about his identity come across as more contrived than exciting. Director David Yates, who gave us the most impressive outings in the Potterverse, is a master magician when it comes to world-building, and brings 1920s Paris to life with a gorgeous eye, each set piece and set decoration alike dripping with invention, convincing details and colourful effects. But there’s little more to The Crimes of Grindelwald than an impressive bit of backdrop-painting – it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re mainly watching a prologue for an inevitable sequel, rather than an adventure in its own right. Forgetting to have fun? That’s the biggest crime any movie can commit.