There’s almost nothing fantastic in this sequel to 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The magic that once permeated every frame and page of Harry Potter’s story has all but evaporated. All that remains are one-note characters and an extremely convoluted series of subplots that never quite come together. Directed once again by David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), who has now helmed six of the 10 films in the Potterverse, the movie feels like a final confirmation of what many already knew: It’s time for him to move on. J.K. Rowling herself is again the sole credited screenwriter here, leaving much to be desired. The cast is sprawling and massive, but only Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Jude Law (“The Young Pope”) — who portrays a younger version of legendary wizard Albus Dumbledore — register in any kind of way.
The story begins sometime after the first film, following magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) as he attempts to track down Credence, the powerful and dangerous wizard who seemingly perished in the last movie but is back here and is once again the MacGuffin that drives almost the entirety of the plot. All of the characters from the first movie are back, along with a whole host of new characters who only serve to derail the action and distract from the main story. None of these new characters are given nearly enough to do to justify their existence. Newt’s brother is introduced and proceeds to do almost nothing in the rest of the film. An emotional moment surrounding him falls completely flat at the end as a result of how little build-up he gets. Other new additions include the human version of Nagini (who will one day become one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes), Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz, “Big Little Lies”) — a distant relative of the villainous Bellatrix Lestrange — and a whole cadre of aurors and wizards who work for Grindelwald, none of whom are distinguishable from each other.
The appearance of Nagini in this movie is the perfect small-scale example of the problems of the “Fantastic Beasts” series at large. Seemingly included only to remind Harry Potter fans of those earlier and superior films, she serves no purpose in this movie and is given maybe five lines. If she does have a purpose in the overall narrative, it won’t be clear until some other movie down the line. That’s how most of the things in “Crimes of Grindelwald” feel. Appearances of Minerva McGonagall and Nicholas Flamel act as wholly unnecessary cameos and at this point, it’s not clear how Newt himself is possibly going to stay relevant to the proceedings, as the coming war between Dumbledore and Grindelwald begins to take center stage. Basically, every character other than those two titanic wizards could be removed from the story and nothing of consequence would change at all. Rowling steeps her story in exposition, giving characters who only appear in this film, don’t make it to the end, and will probably never be seen again long flashbacks explaining their history and motivations. While that kind of thing can work in a 700-page novel, on the screen, it comes across as unfocused and disjointed. One sequence in the third act is literally two different five-minute monologues going into the family tree of a character whose origins are later revealed to be entirely different to what was previously believed. This entire section of the film is so confusing that even the most diehard of Potter fans may find themselves hopelessly lost. A final twist at the end is so utterly baffling that it will leave viewers wondering if J.K. Rowling has truly lost her mind.
There are a few bright spots. Jude Law shines as Dumbledore, and despite all of the controversy surrounding his casting in this film, on a strictly performance level, this has to be Johnny Depp’s best performance in years. Were the film to have focused entirely on the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald it might have come closer to touching that Harry Potter magic. With three more “Beasts” movies in the pipeline, it’s hard to imagine how this story can possibly stay interesting for six more hours. In this film, the plot seems to be running on fumes and this only part two of five. To see the once perfect film franchise and do-no-wrong author fall so far may be hard for some fans, but general audiences have been down this road before. Prequels, as any fan of “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” will tell you, just never quite seem to work out the way you want them to.