Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has all the elements needed to make a great fall blockbuster: a talented cast, hefty production budget, nostalgia factor, and of course, abundant connections to the much-beloved Harry Potter series. What it lacks, however, is a meaningful and coherent plot to tie all these disparate pieces together, resulting in a muddled moviegoing experience that feels like drawn-out filler for the next installments in the Fantastic Beasts film series.
The Crimes of Grindelwald finds dorky magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his friends drawn away from the fantastic beasts of the first film and into the folds of a brewing magical war, destined to be battled out between the great wizards Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Newt is contacted by Dumbledore to locate a mysterious boy named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is rumored to be the key to winning the upcoming war. Other factions have sent their own representatives out to apprehend Credence, such as American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Senegalese pureblood Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam). Meanwhile, Grindelwald moves to gather followers to establish his ideology of a wizarding world order, and since Dumbledore remains under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Magic, it falls on Newt to foil Grindelwald’s plan before he becomes too powerful.
The greatest problem with the film is its apparent need to insert Newt and his friends into a story that never needed to have them involved them in the first place. Their irrelevance to the larger events happening around them becomes increasingly apparent throughout the movie. At the same time, the sheer number of callbacks to the original Harry Potter films that have been tossed into the plot of Fantastic Beasts leaves the movie feeling cluttered, even before acknowledging the amount of established canon it contradicts. For example, the film barely touches on the inclusion of Nagini as a human, despite her onscreen presence being one of the strongest ties to the Harry Potter story. Harry Potter fans will find themselves frustrated by the unexplained overlaps in the wizarding timeline, while casual viewers may be left utterly confused by the film’s reliance on plot devices and magical terms introduced in previous Wizarding World films.
Questionable worldbuilding choices aside, the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t stand strong by itself either as it attempts to juggle multiple character stories at once. Returning characters Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) mostly meander about a forgettable relationship subplot before getting dragged into the big climax at the end of the film. Newt and Tina’s relationship is strained at the beginning of the film by a misunderstanding involving a newspaper article, and is rescued with little fanfare through simply talking to one another. A great revelation involving Newt’s old classmate Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) occurs through a complicated exposition dump, and Credence himself, the central piece in the plot, is little more than a broody walking MacGuffin for everybody else to chase down.
On the upside, the Wizarding World looks more stylish than ever. The 1920s-era characters are clad in some of the finest trench coats, dresses, and suits to ever grace the big screen, and even the Hogwarts student robes have undergone a slick redesign. The sets, which range from Hogwarts itself to a wizarding sideshow circus, are equally imposing and vivid. The benefits of a big budget are self-evident in these aspects, even as the story stumbles through extending over-complicated plot threads.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is ultimately little more than a slow-paced setup for the upcoming films in the series. Magical visuals and fine costuming aside, the film stumbles over excessive subplots and shoehorned, self-contradictory references to Harry Potter. The end result is a low-stakes, probably unnecessary 133-minute prelude to what will most likely be a far more interesting Fantastic Beasts film to come.