If the trailers looked crazy-amazing yet utterly confusing to you, just try watching the movie.
When the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) decides to relocate the criminal wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), he executes a daring escape… and the Aurors are afraid they know where he’s going. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has been forbidden to travel out of Britain after his part trying to protect the human form of an Obscurial, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who apparently survived destruction and is reportedly seeking the parents he was orphaned from. The Ministry of Magic offers to lift the restrictions on Newt under the condition he work with his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and again try to destroy Credence before he can be weaponized. Meanwhile, MACUSA auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) has arrived in Paris to attend a magical freak show where things are about to go horribly wrong…
A lot of hype preceded J.K. Rowling’s movie-only Fantastic Beasts series, from North American wizarding houses to the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Unlike the original seven Harry Potter novels which screenplay writers could crib from and adapt as needed, the adventures of Newt Scamander exist wholly in the cinematic realm, which means little in the way of source material to fall back upon to explain what we just saw (remember trying to make sense of The Order of the Phoenix?) With so much story crammed into such a tiny space, has Warner Bros. learned the lessons suggested by the first film’s follies or doubled-down on Wizarding World overload?
The Crimes of Grindelwald highly suggests (read: demands) that viewers hang on every word and go with the flow of every overly magical location the story unleashes, from a Diagon Alley-esque street carnival to a wizarding safety deposit box repository (is this where important mail goes after security owls deliver it?) It isn’t immediately clear how much of Crimes is merely a continuation of the motivations from the first Fantastic Beasts film until nearly the third act, dazzling viewers with incredible-yet-meaningless effects while assaulting their senses. Over-plotted and under-edited, even die-hard Harry Potter fans may find themselves left behind as the story lumbers forward like a Whomping Willow, failing to valuably infuse first-film favorites while introducing myriad one-note characters seemingly for the purpose of being destroyed.
Somewhere underneath all of it is an interesting story arc, but it appears the Wizarding World does nothing simply — especially if it can be needlessly over-the-top and deadly beyond reason (insert your favorite OSHA joke here). The relationships between important characters herein are the real plot drivers, but things we want/need to know defy explanation while trivial histories earn five-minute CGI expositions of backstory. There’s too much in the way of newness coming at viewers with too little time to process it, not to mention Galaxy Quest-level “people-crushers” for little more reason than “the characters needed another challenge.” All of it undermines a beautiful production, but for every foreboding villainous speech, viewers are made to endure obscura like translucent dirigible-sized black sheets appearing from nowhere and being dragged across neighborhoods that only wizards and witches can see for… whatever.
We get it: the Wizarding World is way-cool with lots to see. Unfortunately, movie-going muggles need time to process the fantastic, whether beast or motivation, to truly enjoy the imagination and story presented. As lamented in similar reviews, perhaps a longer cut that lingers on the purged-for-time missing-yet-necessary details will emerge… an apology for providing everything fans wanted in a form they wouldn’t wish on a Death Eater. Sometimes it isn’t a bad thing to call attention to what’s important when facing an avalanche of red herrings; as Monty Python explained, no one enjoys being assaulted with fish.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action and an overwhelming desire to cast “Riddikulus” at the theater screen.
Two skull recommendation out of four