It’s always a danger when a franchise begins to wear out its welcome. We’ve seen what’s happened to Star Wars, both during the dark days of the prequels and the oversaturation of its Disney-led resurgence. Sometimes, stories are best left well alone, running their course from beginning to end and fading into the membranes of pop culture. But sometimes, creators can’t let go. J.K. Rowling wrote seven Harry Potter novels that were adapted into 8 hugely successful films, but she’s made it clear that that’s simply not enough. So in 2016, the franchise was resuscitated in the form of a prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, taking place nearly a century before the events of the stories we knew and loved. Rowling clearly has a much larger world in her head than we’ve seen over the course of Potter’s story, and by God she’s going to tell that story over these five movies, whether we like it or not.
You might notice some subtext in that opening paragraph. Fantastic Beasts was a resoundingly disappointing film, obsessed with blowing out these little references from the original series into their own grandiose stories that were just fundamentally uninteresting. Newt Scamander was literally nothing more than a name attached to a book, and now he’s going to be the lead in five (FIVE!) films about the wizarding world in the early 20th century.
Here’s the problem, though. We’re two movies in, and it’s become plain that Rowling is, put simply, a terrible screenwriter. Her dialogue is stilted, her plot structure flat and uninspired. It’s clear her talents in prose do not translate to writing for film.
Scamander is set up as a fun-loving, animal-loving rogue, but there’s none of that joy in this second chapter. The beasts are there, sure, but they’re window dressing for yet another battle against an evil wizard hell-bent on world domination. And to tell this story, there are a lot of characters in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Some of them are returners from the first film, but there are just as many new additions. And Rowling has no idea how to make them into interesting or even remotely fleshed out beyond existing as references to the books she wrote that were actually good.
And believe me, there are plenty of references.
Perhaps the most egregious examples of this are the downright puzzling choice to turn Nagini’s Voldemort’s trusty snake companion, into a woman, played by Claudia Kim (who’s essentially window dressing at best), and the introduction of Newt’s school friend and fiancee to his brother, Zoe Kravitz’s Leta LeStrange, significant purely because of her last name. There is literally nothing to these characters beyond the understanding that either they or their family line will be significant in the future. That’s it. Family is the key motivation here, with young Credence Barebone (a sullen, disinterested looking Ezra Miller) searching to discover his true parentage, setting off a battle between Grindlewald (living cartoon character, domestic abuser and all around terrible human being Johnny Depp) and the good guys (the returning Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler, among others). Credence is extraordinarily powerful, and his falling into the wrong hands could spell disaster. So at the urging of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), they set out for Paris to keep him out of Grindlewald’s hands.
There are all sorts of poorly conceived shortcuts and groan-inducing choices across the board here. Fogler’s character had his memory wiped at the end of the first film, designed to be an emotional farewell to the character, but he’s back here and seemingly none the worse for wear, his memory loss hastily retconned in a few lines of clunky dialogue so he can continue on as the source of comic relief in the face of all the grimdark. The romantic spark between Redmayne and Waterston dies on the vine, and the decisions made by Sudol are puzzling at the very best. Depp’s involvement as one of the leads of a major tentpole in the Me Too era (as well as Rowling’s outspoken defense of the casting) is odious at best, and his more-of-the-same acting and mealy-mouthed accent work doesn’t exactly make up for it. The only person who comes out of this even remotely rosy is Law, who gets to play a young Dumbledore as a rakish charmer, the sort you could buy becoming one of the most powerful and influential wizards in the world. But his role is on the sidelines, and we get precious little moments to enjoy the only little bit of brightness in this aggressively dull picture.
David Yates, coming back for his sixth bite at the cherry, has been making these movies for eleven years now, and with each passing installment the color palette gets darker, the visuals muddier, the action more chaotic and harder to follow (and, inevitably, in the rain at night). In the original series, the progressive darkening of the color palette was a conscious choice, a clear juxtaposition with the vibrant colors of the early installments. As children grow, innocence is lost and the color drains from the world in times of great struggle and strife. But here, with these movies that purport to dazzle us with aspects of the wizarding world we’ve never seen before, the Fantastic nature of the world and the beasts is muted and drained by the aggressive blues and grays and browns that suck all life from the proceedings. The result is a narrative bore and a visual chore, a lethal combination for a movie that rings in at two hours and fifteen minutes of punishment.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald represents the very worst of what big budget franchise movies have to offer. It’s drab and lifeless. It’s poorly written and poorly directed. It has no characters, no interest, just a parade of “oh cool, I know that name” moments that are dashed to the rocks when you quickly realize that feeling is all you’re going to get. Perhaps Rowling will try to justify the paper thin characterization by claiming that she’ll expound on them further in the next three films in this interminable and flagrantly unnecessary waste of time, but she’s still writing the scripts and she’s 0 for 2 so far. There’s no evidence to believe this is going to get better, and all the evidence in the world it’s going to get a lot worse. And no one has the power to stop her.
Fool me once, and so on and so forth.