Forgive me for being vague at the top, but my hope is to convey to you the maddeningly convoluted nature of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” without spoiling too much.
Deep into this murky, gloomy and cluttered sequel/prequel/spinoff of the “Harry Potter” franchise, a number of key characters who have been on parallel missions find themselves in the same locale.
Just about everyone is wondering: What in the heck is going on here? What is the real truth?
A character launches into a head-spinning story involving flashbacks and scandalous romances and betrayals and deaths — but just when we think we might have a handle on who’s who and what’s what, ANOTHER character interrupts and says, No-no-no-no, that’s not what happened at all, here’s what really happened!
Are you kidding me? COME ON.
The “Fantastic Beasts” stories, set some 70 years before the start of Harry Potter’s adventures, spring from the astonishingly creative and apparently bottomless imagination of the great J.K. Rowling.
In 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” we met the socially awkward and bumbling but brilliant and goodhearted reluctant hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” more comfortable tending to all manner of magical creatures than interacting with Muggles or Pure-Bloods or Half-Bloods or whatever else is going with people-looking individuals.
If you haven’t seen that first installment, let’s just say when Newt arrived in New York City with his magical suitcase filled with amazing creatures, it ignited quite the chaotic chain of events. (Although there’s not much point in seeing “Grindelwald” if you HAVEN’T seen “Where to Find Them.” These are not stand-alone films; they’re feature-length entries in a projected five-movie series.)
With a screenplay by Rowling, with “Harry Potter” veteran David Yates directing and with a cast deep and rich in talent, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” comes to the table loaded with credentials and potential.
Alas, while the performances are solid and we do get a few touching moments, the film sinks under the weight of too many intersecting storylines and too many loud and fiery and surprisingly mediocre action sequences.
“Grindelwald” picks up the story with the notorious and powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, rocking spiked, white-blonde hair that makes him look like a Billy Idol impersonator) holed up in prison after being captured by the U.S. Ministry of Magic.
About two minutes into a planned transfer of Grindelwald from the States to England to stand trial for his crimes, Grindelwald pulls off an escape with such an impressive (and quite nasty) array of magic, we’re left wondering why he brooded in prison for six months when he clearly had the powers to escape at any time.
No matter. Grindelwald is on the loose somewhere in Europe, marshalling his troops for the coming storm.
You see, for the last hundred years or so, humans and wizards have co-existed in relatively peaceful fashion. But Grindelwald believes now is the time for “Pure Bloods” to take their rightful place as the superior beings, the chosen rulers. (Parallels to real-world fascism duly noted.)
While Grindelwald struts about in his leather boots and his fashionably layered look, commanding his audience with his dazzling magic like he’s Criss Angel to the 10th power, let’s drop in on some of the many, many, MANY ongoing subplots.
Jude Law, clad in tie and vest and waistcoat that makes it look like he stepped off the set of “Sherlock Holmes,” plays the young-ish Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the only one with the strength to take down Grindelwald. Problem is, Dumbledore can’t fight Grindelwald because of the very special bond they shared as young men.
“You were as close as brothers,” says a law enforcement official.
“Closer,” replies Dumbledore.
OK, THAT’S a storyline worth further exploration, but the movie is too busy bouncing all over the place, stuffing subplot after subplot into the mix.
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The mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, overplaying the angst routine like a knockoff combo of James Dean and Marlon Brando), thought to be dead, is determined to find out his true identity, no matter the cost.
Newt reconnects with one-time love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is an Auror — aka a highly skilled wizard who specializes in bringing down terrorists such as Grindelwald — but Tina wants nothing to do with Newt him because she believes Newt is engaged to his former classmate Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), but in fact Leta is engaged to Newt’s brother, Theseus (Callum Turner).
Oh, and Tina’s daffy but lovable sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend, the Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler), are also along for this adventure, mostly for comic relief.
And we haven’t even talked about the shapeshifter Nagini (Claudia Kim), who turns into a huge serpent at times, or the 600-year-old alchemist (Brontis Jodorowsky), who apparently never figured out a way to turn old-guy makeup into believable old-guy makeup. Not to mention the fantastic and not-so-fantastic creatures of various sizes and temperaments, from cute little furry rascals to enormous, growling and rather boring flying monsters that often look so flat and one-dimensional, they should be thrown into CGI Jail.
Not even Newt Scamander’s magically expansive suitcase could contain this much story overflow.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling. Rated PG-13 (for some sequences of fantasy action). Running time: 134 minutes. Opens Nov. 16 at local theaters.