By Jim Slotek
It’s appropriate that the words “Fantastic Beasts” are in smaller type than the rest of the title in the poster for the misbegotten Harry Potter prequel-sequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Sadly, those fantastic beasts – which were duly delivered onscreen in 2016’s enjoyable Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – are mere bit players in this second movie about the “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). The first was essentially a monster movie powered by wit and magic, with the full imagination of first-time scripter J.K. Rowling focused on destruction and mayhem in 1920s New York.
But whoever kept the best-selling author on point in her scriptwriting debut must have been on vacation when she wrote her sophomore script. Grindelwald is a movie that seems to want to recreate the Potter universe and does it in the most plodding way, crowding it with characters and plot points, many of which go nowhere.
Remember how George Lucas wrote a Star Wars movie about trade disputes? Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is mostly about genealogy. Because kids today love genealogy.
To that end, it is a movie that is aimed squarely at that sub-set of Harry Potter fans who care deeply about the family tree of the mostly-evil Lestrange family. (In genre terms, if they were Star Trek fans, they’d be the ones who can recite Shakespeare in Klingon.)
The Crimes of Grindelwald opens at the American Ministry of Magic in New York, where a much-feared Dark Lord named - no not Voldemort, Grindelwald (an albino Johnny Depp), is being kept in solitary magical confinement and prepped for transfer to a more secure location, presumably Azkaban prison. Needless to say, the handoff is botched like a slippery football, and the most evil and powerful wizard in the world is on the loose and en route to Paris.
Why Paris? Because a young man named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a “Chosen One” if you will, whose destiny is foretold as entwined with Grindelwald’s own, is to be found there, and he’s got the geneology to prove it.
Stop me if this is sounding familiar. We’ve also got scenes at Hogwarts, with Quidditch players swooshing around on their brooms, kids in the old school uniforms and younger versions of Prof. McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) and, of course, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law).
Amidst all this, there’s Newt, an only-mentioned author of Hogwarts-required-reading in the Potter novels, whom Rowling subsequently spun off into his own set of literary adventures. Since the first movie was a success, it was deemed necessary to drag the ditzy wizard Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and her muggle boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler) across the Atlantic, along with Queenie’s sister Tina (Katherine Waterston) to add love interest and familiarity.
Is Credence the Chosen One? Is he a long-lost orphaned member of the Lestranges? Is he the brother of Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz)? Why are some people trying to kill him while others plan to groom him?
It’s hard to tell how good of a faux Valdemort Depp will make, since he really doesn’t get to do much evil until the last act (a kind of Nuremberg rally at Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery where he makes clear to the wizard world his plans to eradicate most of humanity and keep the rest as beasts of burden).
It all sets the stage for a showdown where wizards will have to choose between the snake-tongued legions of a Dark Lord and the forces of good. Again, stop me if this is sounding familiar.
As for Scamander and his beasts, they are really the only things that might keep kids interested in this talkie follow-up. They include a kelpie (a Scottish mythological water horse), a niffler (which is kind of a platypus with the instincts of a bloodhound), demon cats called Matagot, a massive Chinese Zouwu and a weird walking plant that pretty much is Groot.
As before, Redmayne brings nerdy charm to the role of the socially maladroit Scamander, and his tongue-tied attempts to woo Tina simply up the wattage of his amiable awkwardness. I have no doubt he can carry Scamander’s story forward. But somebody must hire Rowling a story editor.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Directed by David Yates. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston. Opens wide, Friday, November 16.