Even magic takes a little bit of planning, and in David Yates’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” both are in short supply. In it second outing, the cracks are starting to show in J.K. Rowling’s much-hyped followup series to “Harry Potter,” a franchise that is at the mercy of slapdash planning (these films are cobbled together from various pieces of “Wizarding World” material, not single novels) and the kind of higher-up decree that promised five films (five!) before the first one hit theaters. It’s a lot of time to fill, and while the second film in the franchise nudges its narrative forward, it’s at the expense of a bloated, unfocused screenplay.
Mostly, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is hampered by the unwieldy meshing together of disparate plots that could service their own films (some of them surely better than others). At the center (when he’s not been shunted aside by all those competing narratives), there’s ostensible franchise star Eddie Redmayne as nervous magizoologist Newt Scamander. Newt’s ditzy charm grounded the first film; and when he’s allowed to lead this second story, it’s as whimsical and good-hearted as any in the franchise.
It’s all the other subplots that damage that notion, from a charisma-free Johnny Depp taking over the role of evil Wizard Gellert Grindelwald to a convoluted section all about the family tree of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Portions involving a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) can’t reach their full potential; they’re consistently cut short to zing back to yet another plotline (and that’s without diving into all the subplots about Newt’s brother, his ex-girlfriend, his beloved New York friends, and Credence’s companion Nagini). All this convolution promises to converge during Grindelwald’s coming-out party, a fear-filled rally that is as timely as it is unsettling. Before that, Yates and Rowling must bring together a motley crew of wizards and muggles both good and bad.
Set mostly in Paris and London, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” opens months after the events of the first film. Yates, who already had four “Harry Potter” films under his belt before taking on this series, ended the first “Fantastic Beasts” in the Rowling fashion: with some heartbreak and some hope. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” starts there (and, no spoilers, manages to end there as well). Newt is back in London, the threat of Grindelwald is worse than ever, and the magical community is on edge.
“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is hobbled by some of the larger narrative moments from 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which concluded with a city-gutting magic battle that killed off some key characters, imprisoned others, and threatened to permanently separate the rest. Much of that needs to be undone to push this second film forward, and the first act of engages in some chintzy retconning that also hints at what Rowling (credited as sole screenwriter) really values in this story. The choices are discomfiting.
First up, there’s Credence, believed dead at the end of the first film and now brought back to life by a tossed-off line issued to a bewildered Newt. Other pieces of exposition riddle these early scenes, including brief information about Newt’s one-time love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and the current state of Newt’s working relationship with Dumbledore. These are the people who “Fantastic Beasts” should embrace, and they are the people who get clobbered — leaving more space for Yates and Rowling to stage an unfocused, large-scale prison break centered on the maniacal Grindelwald, who this film is really obsessed with.
Initially portrayed by Colin Farrell in the first film before Depp was revealed to be, well, wearing essentially a magical Colin Farrell-shaped suit, that Grindelwald was scary and strange, but he was also sufficiently alluring to gather a dedicated coven of fans. Now fully embodied by Depp, his Grindelwald is working to increase his numbers and enact a plan for domination that gets murkier as the minutes tick by. Depp is lucky that Farrell did the heavy lifting, as his Grindelwald benefits far more from his reputation than his current deeds.
Soon, Grindelwald is on the hunt for Credence, whom he still believes holds the key to pulling his pureblood followers together, while Credence is blind to anything (and anyone) who doesn’t offer him information regarding his true parentage. Tina is in Europe on her own mission, Newt is shocked to be reunited with Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), and a number of odd new magical creatures are thrown into the mix after a creepy circus invades Paris. Everyone and everything is linked, but the film lurches toward these connections with little momentum.
That’s not to say the diversions can’t be exciting, and flashbacks to Hogwarts during Newt’s younger years are emotional and thrilling. Even visits to the Ministry of Magic come with the special frisson of discovery relished in the “Harry Potter” films. There are new creatures to discover, new family secrets, and enough winks to the Rowling-created universe to keep Potterheads pleased. Yet some of the most anticipated revelations fall flat, including Newt’s previous bond with Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) to a deeper exploration of young Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship. Rowling seems to be playing to the fans in the thinnest way possible, building in stories that require foreknowledge to appreciate them fully. The unindoctrinated will be confused; the admirers, disappointed.
At least it all builds to a massive battle between the forces of good and evil — a Rowling staple if there ever was one — that tears apart some key relationships, establishes others, and sets the stage for more drama and trauma to come. As impressive as the final showdown is (it’s easily one of the most impressive setpieces in this fledgling franchise) and as shocking as the film’s closing revelations are (yes, they really are), this magic needs a spell of its own.
Warner Bros. opens “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” nationwide November 16.