The pattern is familiar. Strike gold with a film slated to be the first in a series, proceed with said series to a satisfying conclusion, then attach more films—prequels, sequels, and reboots—until viewer fatigue sets in and a backlash ensues. Though J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series begat eight film adaptations, a theme park, and a fixed pop culture legacy, she seems to have taken the wrong lessons from her forebears. As the Hobbit trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and Solo: A Star Wars Story have shown, just because one can append more films to a bankable franchise doesn't mean one should.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second of a planned five films in a prequel series to the Harry Potter franchise, which ended with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2 in 2011 and rebooted with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016. If reading the previous sentence felt exhausting, the new movie will amplify that feeling and add a dash of disenchantment for anyone who cannot be wooed by cuddly creatures alone.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is indeed a cash grab, though not a valueless one. The elaborate sets, costumes, and computer-generated critters are aptly spellbinding. A scene in which a middle-aged Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, twinkly-eyed) walks with his former student and Fantastic Beasts protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), through foggy, early 20th-century London evokes Disney's Mary Poppins in its old-fashioned production design and nostalgic whimsy.
The film's principal drawback is its narrative: largely nonsensical and bloated with new characters, subplots, and postscripts to the source material about which the viewer is given little reason to care. Though penned by Rowling and directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four films in the Harry Potter series, The Crimes of Grindelwald feels hollow and disconnected, like it could have been made by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Rowling's wizarding world.
Darting between the magical environs of New York, London, and Paris in 1927, the film hinges on Newt answering Professor Dumbledore's call to find teen runaway Credence (Ezra Miller) before dark wizard at large Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) can weaponize the boy. Supposedly Credence is the last in a powerful, pure-blooded wizarding line and the key to Grindelwald's final solution of pure-blood wizards ruling over half-bloods and nonmagical people. A twist ending, in the most generous use of that term, suggests Credence's true lineage with an anticlimactic thud. This is because Credence, the franchise's apparent linchpin, is a dull character, and Newt is so sweet and pure that he makes angsty, good-hearted Harry look like an antihero by comparison. Meanwhile, Newt's adult American friends Jacob and Queenie (Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol) are equally unrelatable, cartoonish, and annoying in that they're even more childlike than Harry's school pals Ron and Hermione. Meatier characters played by Zoë Kravitz and Katherine Waterston are more interesting, but they deserve a stronger story than this.
The problem with perpetually building on an established world is that, eventually, the seams begin to show. A universe that used to make sense in its own fantastical way now feels slippery and confused, riddled with retcons. That The Crimes of Grindelwald's most affecting moments involve Dumbledore and take place at Hogwarts crystallizes the Fantastic Beasts franchise's core predicament: Rowling's original story is where this world's true magic lies. The offshoots, though lovely to behold, are simulacra. v