Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an unfortunate misstep for this Harry Potter spin off series. It is absolutely stuffed with plot, which leaves little room for any sort of humanity. The first movie in this series balanced the episodic charm of its protagonist dealing with magical creatures with its portentous undergirding excellently. It was mostly about the fantastic beasts from the title, with the other stuff happening in the background. That balance is flipped in the sequel, which is significantly less satisfying. It is all deep Harry Potter lore and the rise of fascism, with shockingly little magical wonder. That is not unlike the rest of the Harry Potter series, but it is definitely playing to a weakness rather than a strength.
The first act of the movie mostly works to unwind the ending of the first. Grindelwald, imprisoned at the end of the first movie, escapes in the opening scene. An apparently dead character is suddenly alive again; other characters are simply reset. It isn’t exactly clumsy, but it takes up a lot of time in a movie that ends up being rather heavy on plot. Soon after Grindelwald escapes prison, Newt and his old buddy Jacob are on their way to Paris on a mission that is not as unrelated as it initially appears. They are also looking for their respective love interests.
It is hard to talk about this movie because it is all plot. Everything is a spoiler. There are a few encounters with magical beasts, each of which holds just enough wonder to make you wish they were the focus of the movie. When the movie tries to show human emotion, it generally succeeds. When Newt’s brother Theseus attempts to hug him and Newt has no idea how to react it is perfectly heartbreaking. That is followed up by a later attempt by Newt to return the hug that is its equal. To its credit, the movie looks great. All of the performers acquit themselves well. It is just doing way too much, so none of it has the impact it should. Honestly, it feels like the worst parts of the movies that were adapting books, which I could more easily forgive because I knew the explanation and impact from the book. Here, the movie is all there is and it is simultaneously too much and not enough.
The movie is trying to deal with some pretty heavy subjects, and its ending leaves things in the air. Grindelwald is some kind of magical albino Hitler and he manages to sway many people to his side with his transparently self serving speeches. It is timely, what with nationalism and fascism on the rise again, but the movie’s depiction of things manages to be both heavy handed and muddled. It is obvious what Grindelwald represents, but Newt is such a withdrawn character that he isn’t much of a counterpoint. The magical governments are compromised. The would be good guys are lead by a young Dumbledore, but he is completely passive for reasons that are not clear for most of the runtime. Hopefully the sequel manages to successfully answer this movie’s questions.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald really seems to want to be the Empire Strikes Back of Harry Potter movies, but in the end it is the series’ equivalent of The Matrix Reloaded. The question is what does the next movie look like. A strong finish or next chapter could make this simply the slightly clunky middle chapter. A disaster would make this look even worse in comparison.