Evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes from magic prison and plots to take over the world by indoctrinating a powerful young boy named Credence Barebone. Meanwhile, the department of magical law enforcement pursue Grindelwald, led by Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) and with the help of Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie) who has his own agenda. Meanwhile, Newt Scamander is trying to stay out of the war but longs to see Tina again. Meanwhile, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is trying to turn Newt into the soldier he can’t be. Meanwhile, Tina is trying to find Credence before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Credence is in some sort of circus with a still human Nagini (Claudia Kim), where they plot to escape and find his real mother. Meanwhile, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is a muggle trying to find his manic wife, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Meanwhile, Queenie is trying to find her sister whilst learning to cope with her own unusual abilities. Meanwhile, a 600-year-old Alchemist is being urged back to action. And finally, meanwhile, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) is dealing with her feelings for Newt whilst also assisting in the hunt for Grindelwald.
The film consists of far too many story strands, none of which are quite interesting enough to be memorable. The effect is that important moments and character motivations tend to get lost in the shuffle. The reunion of Newt and Tina happens so briefly that I was momentarily shocked to see them together. Threads are introduced and then neglected for vast portions of the film. I didn’t recognise Leta when she was reintroduced some half hour after her first scene and so failed to grasp the importance of her scenes at Hogwarts. Her love triangle with Newt and Theseus is impossible to care about as we barely have any sequences of these characters together.
Warner Brothers’ wizarding world has yet to establish a consistent feel to its universe. When the action returns to Hogwarts and Williams classic theme is used, it’s almost like cutting to an entirely different film. There’s no time to pay due respect to the iconography of this location. A young Professor Mcgonagall is introduced unceremoniously and is later afforded a single moment of her old charm before the film moves on. The childlike wonder of the original film’s was somewhat fulfilled in the original Fantastic Beasts film by Neat and his fondness for the titular creatures. He has even less connection to the events of this film. Consequently, there’s little of this fantastical world that is relatable. It is also fairly inaccessible to newcomers. Anyone not familiar with the role of an auger, or the name Lestrange will struggle somewhat.
Eddie Redmayne is still fairly charming as the awkward hero, and the returning actors avail themselves well in their limited roles. One character deciding to change sides in the third act feels particularly unmotivated. We never get much of a chance to see these characters together, enjoying each other’s company or getting into trouble or otherwise interacting. Jude Law is the best of the new characters, playing a young Dumbledore. He has a benevolent warmth that perfectly invokes the beloved headmaster. Depp abandons his usual reliance on quirks and mannerisms and delivers a surprisingly uninteresting performance as the villain. Beyond his comical appearance, he’s not an intimidating or commanding presence.
The action if the film is, once again, very hard to follow. Yates films mainly in extreme close-ups, with lots of elements on screen at once, so the action is like a computer-generated Bourne sequence. The stakes are low as giant unconvincing characters bombastically smash through unpopulated paper environments. The opening escape sequence has some imaginative moments but is very difficult to follow.
The production design of the film is very impressive even if it does lack character. There’s an obligatory secret club sequence to differentiate the magical Paris from the magical New York of the previous film. The club sequence is very impressive but it’s not enough to make up for the absence of the big magical castle these films formerly called home.
There are three sequences in which the elements that do work come together to make something special. The first is Queenie becoming overwhelmed whilst searching for her sister in Paris. The second is the flashback to Leta’s time in Hogwarts and her relationship with Newt. The third is Grindelwald’s speech in which he delivers an interesting argument against the superiority of humans, as the scene builds in genuine tension. The film needed fewer strands and more quiet moments to explore its world and characters.
The problem with both of these films is that the more familiar the characters are with the specialness of their environment, and the more prevalent the fantastical elements, then the less impact any of it has. Its a fantasy film with no sense of wonder and it has far too much story to tell for there to be any time for character moments or real investment.