As much as I loathe to agree with the idea of Hollwood cash-grabs masquerading as universe-expanding prequels and seemingly on-demand spin-offs, J. K. Rowling’s first foray into the pre-Potter Wizarding World successfully knocked off my initial build-up of snark and cynicism. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them not so much milked those unholy box-office udders as obliterated my sub-zero expectations, took my money and had given me some good, old magical Hollywood entertainment with a bit of brain, visual wit and some sociopolitical resonance to spare. But, let’s not foget it’s “entertainment” that it largely peddles to the masses. Which is why, to my disappointment, that its follow-up The Crimes of Grindelwald has sorely very little of it. Instead, it’s overly busy with cross-references in the Rowling Universe, with a multitude of narratives carelessly spinning around an oddly incoherent axis that the film forgets to have fun and let things soar, just like its predecessor.
Never mind it’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald, the screenplay rarely explores the tresspasses of this mutinous, platinum-haired antagonist, despite having a very good Johnny Depp in the role and exuding a kind of charismatic menace and hints of complex misantrophy. Instead, the film is busy cramming character storylines and expositions supposedly anchoring the backstories of some of the renowned Hogwarts’ alumni. When you’re not scratching your head, deciphering the real relationship between the young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, fitting but underused) and Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) – which is barely touched upon – there’s Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz, smoulderingly perfect), whose presence seems to largely provide red-herrings. Intentionally, Rowling presents us a flashback of this character’s youth halfway through the film, and later on shelving out a complicated family lineage, and while this seems such a Highly Significant Reveal, it turns out to be gravely inconsequential. Unless Madame Rowling pulls of a hat trick in the later movies to make sense of this whole goddamn thing.
Elsewhere, there’s the existentially conflicted Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, scowling throughout) and his plight, taking it on to investigate his family lineage, too. Hell yeah, this is a whole family soap opera. Suddenly this whole rigmarole turns into a tedious who-is-who guessing game in the Potter canon, who’s the long-lost brother, or the step-daughter, or the child of a mother who is actually step-mother or whatever until you can’t care less anymore. Credence spend most of his time in the film asking everybody who his parents really are, wherein the sole purpose of this pursuit is to give you more backtstory expositions, as if there weren’t enough for you to lose your sleep on. This should be called The Origin of Barebone, not The Crimes of Grindelwald for crying out loud.
But let’s not forget about our escapading heroes, Newt Scamander, played to increasingly one-note expression by Eddie Redmayne, as he descends to Paris with his bumbling sidekick Jacob Kowalksi (Dan Fogler), hunting down monsters, Credence, the rogue Grindelwald, pursuing new flame Tina Goldstein, dealing with old flame Leta, and then some more. Told you the screenplay is chock-full yet rarely knows how to do full throttle. The film is best when it’s focusing on Newt and his eccentric yet endearing ways of rehabilitating monsters and his moral quest to set things right, at its most fascinating when it displays a 1940s Parisian milieu, and its most scintillating when it touches on a timely political climate, when right-wing figures mine anti-establishment sentiment to siphon in purist agendas. In this case, Grindelwald makes for a darkly interesting figure, surely worthy of a central limelight (this sequel is named after him, for fuck’s sake) but the film disposes of this opportunity all too quickly as it’s too busy gazing and gawking at a moth-eaten family tapestry.
It’s all scene-building, yet offers very little to enthrall. It’s like being in an airport terminal, waiting for a connecting flight. So much waiting abound that you just can’t wait to get to the destination. One hopes all of this will make sense in the later instalments, but personally, I can’t deny how this sequel offers more in the way of tedium than the “entertainment‘ it promises.