After a surprisingly smart first entry in the Fantastic Beasts series—Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a Harry Potter movie, minus the Harry Potter, for the now-adults who grew up reading Harry Potter—the second entry in the five-film series, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, falters. The first half of the movie is a motivation-less mess that cannot be overcome by the more focused and engaging second half. Hopefully the series will regain its footing in the next installment, due in 2020.
The messy first half of the film is due in large part to the plethora of new characters and story lines added in to fill out this pre-Potter wizarding world. And the characters we met and loved in the first film feel shoehorned into this drama that Potterheads already know from backstory peppered throughout the original books. And the movie expects you to know that backstory. The movie does very little to develop it for new audiences (or for audience members who aren’t experts on Potter lore).
The large number of characters and unconnected story lines themselves aren’t necessarily a problem. Many movies do this. The trick is to make it clear what the characters want, so we can compare, scene to scene, how they go about getting it. The differences in their methods reveal the differences in their characters. For the first half of this movie, we don’t know what each of these characters want, so what they are doing doesn’t develop their characters, so we don’t care about what’s happening to them. (Additionally, there are a handful of scenes meant to wow us visually, but which have no bearing on the plot.)
Everything is clarified a little over half way through the film, and then characters and actions begin to matter. The themes that emerge are those typical of J.K. Rowling’s (screenwriter here, as for the first Beasts film) Potter-verse: how fear of the other makes us susceptible to both committing acts of evil and following those who do. The Crimes of Grindelwald plays with the cultural prejudices around miscegenation that was common in the 1920s (when the film is set) very explicitly. The movie is, sadly, too disorganized to develop that theme with any nuance, and so any message is, at best, lost and, at worst, guilty of reinforcing the very stereotypes it means to tear down.
Oh well. As with all these film franchises, there’s always next time, though that doesn’t excuse a poorly made film in the mean time.