Oh, for want of a magic spell that could somehow fast-forward us to the end of J.K. Rowling’s planned five-movie (yes, five) Fantastic Beasts saga. Watching the second episode, The Crimes of Grindelwald, with the knowledge that we’re not even half-way through and that there are no companion tomes (save for the pithy 2001 “textbook”) to help make sense of it all is enough to make us Muggles weep.
Director David Yates, who helmed the final four Harry Potter flicks along with the first Beasts movie, gets full marks for his creative eye and devotion to giving audiences a feast for the senses. The visual effects and art direction are out of this world, and it all begins with a gnarly mid-air chase sequence set in the middle of a thunderstorm, as the nefarious Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaks out of prison. From there, though, the story gets more muddled than a first-year’s attempt at one of Snape’s potions.
The beleaguered Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has been grounded by the Magic higher-ups after the calamitous events of the first film, but they’re willing to restore his standing if he agrees to go to Paris to locate pure-blood wizard Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller); Credence, they fear, is being recruited by Grindelwald to kill Dumbledore, since only a wizard can kill a wizard.
Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who is engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz)—who may or may not be Credence’s sister—tries to convince him to take the deal, but Newt refuses. Immediately after, though, Newt is visited by Dumbledore (Jude Law), who persuades Newt to accept this mission, explaining he can’t go after Grindelwald himself due to a pact the two wizards made in their younger years.
Then Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) show up at Newt’s place, hoping to head to Paris with Newt; they’ve been chasing after Tina (Katherine Waterston), who has been avoiding Newt, mistakenly under the impression that he (and not Theseus) is engaged to Leta.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Tina is hunting for Credence herself, and she finds him hanging out with the shape-shifting Nagini (Claudia Kim), who has been living as a circus attraction—the woman who can transform into a snake. Credence escapes from Tina, though, just before Newt, Queenie, and Jacob arrive themselves.
From there, the narrative mess becomes even more of a slog, as Rowling seems to be throwing everything (and everyone) but the kitchen sink into the story. Even die-hard Potterphiles may find the proceedings more than a little tough to follow, particularly with no shortage of red herrings, mistaken identities, and plot twists.
And then when you take into account the fact that Crimes’ only real purpose is to serve as a bridge between the first film and the third (which will, in turn, bridge to the fourth and then from them on to the grand finale in the fifth), it’s difficult to want to spend any time at all trying to decipher what the heck is going on.
The obvious compare/contrast is with the original Harry Potter saga. Yes, everything led up that final showdown outside Hogwarts, but along the way, each book (and movie) not only furthered the plot but worked very nicely on its own as a unique and interesting story. The only magic spell you wanted was one to keep the series from ending—not one that could hurry up and just get you there already.