There’s plenty of CGI wizardry but precious little cinematic magic in David Yates’s second episode of J. K. Rowling’s prequel to her fabulously successful Harry Potter books and the equally successful movie franchise based on them. The initial installment of the proposed five-part series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” was merely mediocre; this follow-up, “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” doesn’t even reach that not-so-lofty status.
Part of the problem remains that Newt Scamander, the so-called magizoologist who’s the protagonist of the narrative, is a dull, colorless character, notable (apart for his ability to bond with peculiar creatures) only for his shyness and reticence. It’s a role that certainly does not challenge the talents of Eddie Redmayne, the capable young actor who won an Oscar playing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and was nominated for another for “The Danish Girl.” Mostly all he’s required to do is hunker down in his oversized overcoat, toss around a floppy head of hair and look diffident (especially when pining away for the girl he likes). Redmayne strikes those poses more than adequately, but it doesn’t make for a terribly charismatic figure.
Perhaps that’s why he’s so often shunted off to the side this time around, ceding the spotlight to a small army of other characters.. Too many, in fact: Rowling crammed plenty of colorful figures into the Potter saga, but the screenwriters of the films, along with the actors who played them, were able to invest them with real personality. Here the author’s novelistic, rather than screen-friendly, inclinations show through: we get a similar parade, but neither Yates nor editor Mark Day seems able to get a handle on it, and for the most part the only characters who make a positive impression are some from the first film—particularly Queenie (Alison Sudol), the flapper sister of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the woman Newt is hiding a secret torch for, and her muggle boyfriend Jacob (the happily over-the-top Dan Fogler), whose relationship is sorely tested this time around.
That’s because Newt’s Voldemort is fleshed out in this episode (probably a bit too early for the overall good of the run). He’s Gellert Grindelwald, the ambitious wizard Scamander was instrumental in capturing last time around. Shown in this installment escaping from the authorities during a prisoner transfer in a splashy prologue showcasing his shape-shifting prowess, Grindelwald aims to bring together all the pure-blooded wizard-world to do battle with the humans and take control of the planet.
His rationale, as he explains in a long, lugubrious speech to potential followers, is that unless they step in, the muggles will unleash a terrible war against one another in which their kind will also suffer. (The narrative is apparently set in 1927, and he calls up images of World War II—including an atomic bomb—as evidence. (Using such visuals as a prop in this sort of comic-book level entertainment seems rather tacky, but Rowling seems to have misplaced even her sense of propriety this time around.)
Perhaps Grindelwald might have been an intriguing character, but as played, in another of his highly affected, ethereal turns by Johnny Depp, he comes across pretty much as a pompous windbag. Even the villain’s look is boring: with his spiky white hair and bulging eyes, the question his appearance might raise is: why didn’t they just hire the real Malcolm McDowell?
As for the busy plot mechanics, Grindelwald is recruiting adherents to his cause in Paris, abetted by his staff of lieutenants—Vinda Rosier (Poppy Corbin-Tuech), Krali (David Sakurai) and Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie), as well as Grimmson (Ingvar Sigurosson), a turncoat bounty hunter whom the clueless magic council appoints to track down Grindelwald when Newt refuses the job. But the person whom Grindelwald really wants to add to his roster is Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the young man introduced in the last film, because, as we’re often told mysteriously about characters here, “only he” can do something the wizard needs done.
Meanwhile Newt is approached by his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find Grindelwald; he can’t do it himself, it appears—also for mysterious reasons. Newt has allies to rely on as well: Bunty (Victoria Yeates), who watches over his menagerie in his absence; his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who’s engaged to Newt’s old classmate Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz); and Tina.
As if this plethora of characters weren’t enough, there’s also a suave fellow named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a French-Senegalese wizard who’s also searching for Credence; Nagini (Claudia Kim), a Maledictus who will in future become the companion of Voldemort but here helps Credence escape a circus in which both are trapped; and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), an ancient alchemist who aids the band of heroes in their climactic survival.
That’s an awful lot of folks to keep straight, and even though some of them—Kama, for example—are given elaborate monologues to explain who they are and what they’re doing, most don’t register very strongly. It’s one of those cases in which a scorecard would help; but even after memorizing who’s who, you’d find yourself at pains to try to care about any of them, even Redmayne’s pallid Newt. One of the few exceptions, along with Fogler’s Jacob, is the young, strapping Dumbledore whom Law plays with welcome energy. But he’s the exception: Miller, for instance, pretty much stole “Justice League” as The Flash, but here he’s tediously one-note as Credence, whose real identity becomes the great reveal at the end of “Crimes,” which otherwise ends—as so many of these so-called tent-pole movies do—inconclusively, leaving you hanging until the next installment.
Of course, the visuals are of high quality. Stuart Craig’s production design is first-class, and so are the effects, especially those involving the beasties of the title, which often have more CGI personality than the wizards and humans they interact with. Nevertheless the lovingly crafted details are often smudged or otherwise obscured by the decision to shoot almost everything in bleak, dreary tones that are more depressing than atmospheric. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is adept at capturing the chosen mood, but the result is no more ingratiating than James Newton Howard’s workmanlike score.
There’s still hope for the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise—after all the “Harry Potter” series started out slowly and got progressively better. But on the evidence of “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Rowling fans shouldn’t get their hopes up.