After an enjoyable, if flat debut in 2016, the Wizarding World sequel series returns with a mediocre follow up that while charming in places, once again fails to capture the magic of the original J.K Rowling stories. (despite this film being written by Rowling herself!) Director David Yates delivers his sixth contribution to this universe with the same dark, dramatic tone and stunning (if CGI dependent) visual style, but an overall sloppy narrative that misses some key character beats and ultimately feels too much like a middle chapter, then a compelling film in its own right.
Like its predecessor, Crimes of Grindelwald struggles in the creation of its own narrative by trying to do too much across a single movie, in particular, setting up for future sequels. While the overall focus rightly remains on Eddie Redmayne’s Newt, the writers fail to make his story link organically to the Grindelwald plot, which now becomes the focus, making this an even more jarring problem than it was in the first. It feels that as they now craft a story purely focused around the origin of Dumbledore and he and Grindelwald’s tumultuous relationship, they feel equally bound to make it a story about Newt and his monsters, creating a messy crossover that doesn’t quite hit the spell on the head.
The writing is also equally sloppy when it comes to characterisation, as players that were well developed in the first film, become shadows of, or in one instance, a complete reversal of themselves for the sake of giving them something to do. It is messy and sigh inducing. Some elements are handled well, such as a flashback at Hogwarts, though that may be infused with a healthy dose of nostalgia, in particular with the brilliant use of John Williams’ original score, that’ll make a grown man squeal with joy. However, in the same breath, another piece of exposition is delivered so clumsily, you’d swear you were watching a hastily edited together piece of fan fiction.
What is not clumsy however, are the stellar performances on display from both Eddie Redmayne and Jude Law, who both bring likeability, dramatic weight and believability to their roles. Redmayne slips comfortably back into the mustard waistcoat of the kind and quirky Newt Scamander, while Law manages to bring the warmth and wisdom of Richard Harris’ Dumbledore, smartly omitting the angrier elements introduced in later films. He also manages to make him both young and fresh, giving a stand out performance. Johnny Depp feels lazy in his portrayal of the titular villain and brings none of the madness and terror offered by Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort and barely offers anything compelling for the audience to play with. He’s just dull unfortunately.
Where the film truly succeeds however, is in its visual style. The Wizarding World feels more reminiscent of the Star Wars universe now, with powerful wand battles sans spell names evoking the same kind of imagery as a blaster battle on Endor. The fights are quick, potent and incredibly enjoyable to watch, with a variety of different spells creating a multitude of magical effects. The opening scene is a shining example of this and it perfectly sets the scene for a film that unfortunately never quite reaches the cinematic heights that it establishes. A slight personal peeve would be the lack of practical effects that could enhance the realism and tangibility of many of the creatures. In their CGI state they’re passable, but never did I forget I was watching a computer-generated effect.
The cinematography for the most part is serviceable, with a fun use of slow motion being an example of some of the more irreverent creativity on display. An early scene however is shot with a variety of close up shots that simply don’t add anything and come across as distracting and ugly. The score is serviceable, but continues the Wizarding World trend of remaining dissonant with the rest of the series. With the exception of the, admittedly wonderful, use of the main Harry Potter theme when returning to Hogwarts, there are no returning leitmotifs from any of the prior films, or at least none that stand out as noteworthy. With characters and objects returning from the Chris Colmbus age of the franchise, it would’ve been nice to have seen some musical homages in there.
In conclusion, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like a misfire. Despite some great action scenes and two really strong performances, it comes off as a bit of a mess. It feels incredibly reminiscent of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; trying to juggle too many branching storylines, following up on unresolved plots from the first film and also attempting to set up the events of the next one. Ultimately, it buckles under its own weight, creating a nice-looking blockbuster, that leaves you feeling as magical as a muggle. Or at least a squib.