It’s hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter. For many under 30 years old, JK Rowling's series is their generation’s “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars.” Both in the world of literature and film, "Harry Potter" is a touchstone fantasy franchise, and in the grand tradition of explosively successful franchises, writer Rowling has treated us to a new series of bloated prequels we neither wanted nor asked for that almost completely lack the charm and appeal of the initial property they originated from.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was a trifle of a movie that offered nothing more than an aside to the Potter universe about a shy British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who catches weird creatures and defeats a moody, rogue wizard. However, the cliffhanger revealed Johnny Depp as a legendary evil wizard Grindelwald that we know (if you know your Harry Potter lore) was defeated in an epic battle with Harry’s mentor and teacher Albus Dumbledore.
In this adventure, Newt is called upon by a much younger Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find the recently escaped Grindelwald before he reaches the troubled runaway Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose untapped power will only help the dark wizard in his war against the moderate wizarding axis. Dan Fogler as the bumbling muggle Jacob Kowalski joins the effort, along with Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein and Zoe Kravitz as Leta Lestrange, a childhood friend of Newt who’s hiding her own secret agenda.
Though Depp, Redmayne and Law are capable actors who show moments of true consideration about the emotional states of their characters, the cluttered structure of this sequel does an extreme disservice to their work. The film is weighed down by reams of plot shoved into every scene. At every turn, there’s always something to explain, some backstory to unfold and some greater strategy taking place to move the players on the narrative chessboard. The movie’s a chore to get through, and you’ll feel like you should be taking notes instead of eating popcorn.
Any adventure or levity we get through Newt and Kowalski as they’re globetrotting and taking secret meetings is undercut by the Rowling’s sprawling screenplay that constantly shifts perspective and fails to focus on something long enough to build necessary tension. The emotional arcs within the film — Leta's secrecy, Credence’s seduction to the dark side of magic, or Newt’s will-they-or-won't-they relationship with Tina — are totally compromised in favor of world building and franchise construction that’s more concerned with laying the foundation for more films to come.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is almost salvaged by an effective ending that echoes the darker times of Europe’s fascist rise, and Depp gets one good moment to command the camera and let the plot settle into the power of the scene. I would have liked a few more sequences like this instead of the endless scenes we do get in which characters are whispering exposition to each other within a dower, color-muted sets.
It’s clear that Rowling is frustrated that movie scripts don’t contain the space a novelist can indulge to focus on details or characters that don’t advance the plot. If we are to move forward with this upcoming showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, the next film desperately needs to trim the fat and build a sturdy, story-based foundation on the motivations of the characters.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He freelances for both print and online outlets.