J.K. Rowling’s impact on the modern cultural landscape is undeniable: The “Harry Potter” book series remains the best-selling of all time, and Rowling’s wizarding world has given rise to nine successful films, two theme parks, one Tony Award-winning play and millions upon millions of devoted fans worldwide. Anyone would be forgiven for assuming the woman can do no wrong.
But with her screenplay for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” — the follow-up to 2016 “Harry Potter” prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — Rowling proves she is very, very capable of doing something wrong.
Though the film desperately attempts to hitch itself to the legacy of the original franchise, it has none of the charm of the previous “Potter” films; in fact, it barely even has a story at all. Messy, overstuffed and overly concerned with clumsy table-setting for future installments, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is an utter disappointment for die-hard “Potter” fans and general audiences alike.
The film takes place in 1927 and opens with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald — a discount Voldemort played by a half-asleep Johnny Depp — escaping from his magical prison in New York. Grindelwald aims to take over the wizarding world and rule all nonmagical people, and Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is his secret weapon of choice. A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) makes his counterattack in typical Dumbledore fashion: sending someone else to do it. This time around, that “someone else” is not Harry Potter but magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is tasked with getting to Credence before Grindelwald does.
But Newt is not alone in his quest — he’s accompanied by a supporting cast that’s roughly 50 percent returning players, 50 percent new faces and 100 percent underserved by Rowling’s script. The film struggles to address all of its subplots adequately, so much so that it ends up developing none of them — every scene feels rushed, and none of the emotional beats or character choices are earned.
Perhaps the most frustrating example of this is the treatment of Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a mind reader whose upbeat, sassy disposition livened the previous “Fantastic Beasts” entry. Queenie is made to do some bafflingly unlikable things in this film — a direction for her character that might have been interesting had it been given time to mature, but that instead feels, with its limited screen time, almost laughably nonsensical.
This pattern holds true for almost every other character in the film. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) only gets a few snarky comments in edgewise. Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s old flame, has a few extended flashback sequences that end up leading absolutely nowhere. Nagini (Claudia Kim) — yes, in a bafflingly dumb link to the original “Potter” canon, she’s Voldemort’s snake — shows up in the circus with Credence and then simply ends up following him around for the whole movie. It would seem the sole reason for her presence in the film is her Easter egg status, as her relationship to Credence is never explored or explained.
There are, however, a few saving graces in this magical web of mediocrity. Redmayne continues to delight as Newt, bumbling lines such as “her eyes are like a salamander’s” with irresistible appeal. The chemistry between Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) also makes for some genuinely sweet moments.
The reappearance of Albus Dumbledore is an additional treat, as is the requisite return to Hogwarts. The brief sequences taking place at the school are like shots of nostalgia straight to the system. It’s an obvious trick, and at times a lazy one; at one point, Rowling literally bends the rules of time and her own canon to shove in a cameo — but it does work. Seeing those familiar school grounds again makes for a good time.
But sadly, no amount of cursory fan service can distract from the film’s lack of a cohesive story. Director David Yates does his best, frenetically cutting among magical faces and locales, but to no avail. The film buckles under its sheer amount of plotting; even the legions of “Potter” faithful will leave the theater confused.
Ostensibly, all of these disparate plotlines exist because they’ll be developed further in future installments. The film certainly alludes to this, as the frankly ludicrous cliffhanger at its conclusion suggests, to nobody’s surprise, that the real battle is yet to come. But in getting so caught up in setting up the next films, it seems Rowling forgot to make this one any good.
And that’s a real shame. Because, as any Potter fan knows, she’s capable of real magic — something this film severely lacks.