“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is the first movie to bear a logo declaring it part of J.K. Rowling’s “Wizarding World” — and, oddly, the first movie that’s not deserving to be in the company of Harry Potter’s adventures.
It’s 1927, just a year after the New York exploits of “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) depicted in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” But before we get back to Newt, Rowling’s script deals with the arch-villain captured at the end of that last movie, Gellert Grindelwald (played by Johnny Depp — and, no, Rowling’s imagination hasn’t come up with a way to recast with a less problematic actor). Grindelwald is being transported from New York to Europe to stand trial, but he plots a daring escape and gets away.
Now back to Newt, who turns down a chance to lift the Ministry of Magic’s ban on his traveling abroad — because he doesn’t want to work as an auror (the magic world’s version of a police detective), because he’d have to work for his older brother, Theseus (Callum Turner). That job would also put Newt in proximity to his one-time crush, and Theseus’ fiancee, Leta Lestrange (Zoé Kravitz).
The magical ministries in the United States and Europe have traced Grindelwald to Paris, and they believe his aim is to recruit Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the troubled and freakishly powerful young man who wreaked havoc on New York in the previous movie. Someone else wants Newt to find Credence first — and that someone is Newt’s old Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law).
It’s nearly an hour into the movie, directed by David Yates (who has now helmed four “Potter” and two “Fantastic Beasts” films), before fans get their promised visit back to Hogwarts. Before that, we have to delve into three potential romances: Newt’s continued pining for New York auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston); Tina’s ditzy sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), casting misplaced enchantments on no-maj baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); and Credence, hiding out in a circus freak show, and falling for one of the performers, Nagini (Claudia Kim) — who transforms into a python familiar to “Potter” fans.
Besides giving Voldemort’s assassin snake a tragic backstory, Rowling’s soap opera of a script is overloaded with extraneous characters and mishandled motivations. What’s worse, Rowling and Yates tell a lot more than they show, letting characters rattle off exposition by the yard — usually accompanied by elaborately staged but literal-minded flashbacks.
When there is action, usually involving some odd creature Newt has tamed, it feels like a diversion from the story rather than part of it. And the less said about the final plot reveal, again spoken rather than shown, the better for everyone.
Because of the dense plotting and exposition, Redmayne’s Newt becomes a subsidiary character in his own movie. Instead, we get too much of Depp’s mumbling menace, as well as the flighty Queenie, easily the weakest character Rowling has written for this universe.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” isn’t the last we’ll see of Newt Scamander and his friends — at last report, Rowling was envisioning a five-movie arc — so there’s time and space for Rowling to right the ship. But make no mistake, there’s a sizable amount of damage done to the franchise’s reputation, and it’s all self-inflicted.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’
Opens Friday, November 16, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action. Running time: 135 minutes.