Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros. Pictures
Hands up, everyone who liked the Harry Potter series – books and / or movies – at least well enough.
OK, well, that's a lot of you.
Keep them up if you made it all the way through 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a prequel to the canonical Potter stories, in which Eddie Redmayne played magizoologist Newt Scamander, who came to New York City in 1926 with a magical valise and an annoying, squirrelly affect.
Hunh. Thought that would eliminate more than you than did.
Okay, now only keep them up if you came away from Fantastic Beasts disappointed. If you liked the setting – the so-called Wizarding World, U.S. edition – but felt the story of meandering, muddled, overstuffed mess that leaned too hard into the cutesy-wutesy magical critters. If you have it captured some of the stylistic flourishes of Harry Potter, but none of the distinctive particulars, none of the feel, none – let's just get this out of the way – of the magic.
Okay. Now. If your hand is not up, you're excused. This next bit is not for you – you do not care about J.K. Rowling's world, or you're so devoted to it that you managed to ignore the fact that Fantastic Beasts was a cinematic Obscurus – a noisy ball of violent, nonsensical narrative chaos, albeit one that did boffo B.O.
So off with you. Everyone else? The ones still sticking around? Here's the scoop.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is better than the first Beasts film, and not just because that's a low bar to clear, but because it has a firmer grasp on what kind of movie it wants to be. It feels more familiarly Potter-y, in that it assumes the distinctive narrative shape of Harry Potter stories.
Once again: Structurally, it's familiar, not, you know: good.
Can we all admit, here, that the plots of Harry Potter books and movies were always frustrating in the extreme? Rowling's characters are delighted in keeping vital information from the Harry – and by extension, the reader – turning every mystery where the goal was never to whodunnit, but to the very basic understanding of whatthehellllsgoingon? Inevitably, we'd find the answers – well, "discover" is inaccurate. We'd be told, when Rowling would eventually sit down Harry down to have him listen to an extended monologue, filled with secret history to which neither he nor we could have expected to be privy.
That's the kind of plotting The Crimes of Grindelwald to up, a hilariously out-of-nowhere pseudo-climactic scene in which characters have been spent to kill one another just stand around listening to a series of monologues like they are sleepy kindergartens at storytime.
No, it does not work. No, it's not, not even a little bit, good. But it's familiar.
It's actually an improvement, in a very small, specific way. You'll recall that all of the information was kept from Harry and his friends because no one tells kids anything, forcing them to glean any and all the actionable intel via that all the kid-lit: eavesdropping. Magical eavesdropping, to be sure, but even so: they go to the wrong conclusion, and proceed to the misinformation until the penultimate chapter, when someone (Dumbledore) will finally explain the situation in full. Rinse, repeat. Accio annoyance.
There's none of that here, at least.
Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander is an adult, and he finds things out using magic. There's a cool sequence when he reconstructs a crime scene using a glittery gold magical powder – pixiedusting for fingerprints, as it was. This time out, the sheer number of putatively hilarious beasts on the hand is dialed mercifully back, but the ones who do turn up are to be used strategically, to just about as a means to up the film's Whimsy Quotient .
Redmayne's performance, as Newt, remains just as mannered and tic-ridden as ever. But thanks to a short flashback sequence featuring a teenage Newt played by Joshua Shea, who gamely matches Redmayne's every furtive head-tilt and skittering glance, it seems less hammy and indulgent, and more a defined, characterizing choice.
Of course, one of the main reasons that Grindelwald works better than the movie that was before it was a function of its status as a trilogy of the middle film. The business of world-building, which is the first film made by a cornered-beef hash, is now just the task of moving the different characters across the board like the Wizard's Chess pieces they are. As such, it has a more singular sense of purpose, as all the meandering subplots of the film's first hour eventually lock in place and fit together.
The plot, such as it is: Young Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt to Paris, where a newly escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is gathering his faithful – pure blood wizards – in an attempt to rule both the Wizarding world and the human world. Meanwhile, Ezra Miller's (checks notes) Credence Barebone is … (checks notes again, frowns, shrugs) … Credence Barebone is also in Paris, searching for his mother, alongside sort of girlfriend Nagini (Claudia Kim) a Maledictus cursed to one day turn into a snake. (Yes.)
Also there's love-interest stuff: Newt and his Auror girlfriend Tina (Katherine Waterston) are on the outs over a misunderstanding that could be clarified with a ten-second conversation, but is not, because Rowling gonna Rowling. Newt's pals Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol, doing a lot with one of the many underwritten roles for women) show up, as well, and the script puts them through some clear defined changes that at least feel like narrative progress.
The film's chief problem is Grindelwald, a dull-as-dishwater villain we're repeatedly told is charming and deceitful, although Depp's performance fights hard against any such reading. The character of Grindelwald is supposed to use guile and rhetoric to win wizards to his side by promising them to live "live openly, and love freely" – a not-especially coy attempt by the screenplay to underline the gay subtext between Grindelwald and Law's Hot Dumbledore – but Depp just hams it up like a pantomime baddie.
Everything about the guy is second-rate. Voldemort had disquieting sluts where his nose should be; Grindelwald a single, discolored iris. When Voldemort summoned his Followers, a leering skull with a snake slithering through its eye-sockets manifested in the sky: that wizard had style. When Grindelwald attempts the same move, the buildings of Paris simply get shadowy tarps thrown over them; it's unclear if he's calling an army or renovating masonry.
So, now. All of you who stuck around? Relax. Grindelwald is a better, more purposeful and thus more propulsive film than the first, and it does possess its unique charms: Several characters only alluded to in the Harry Potter tales pop up here, goosing appreciative gasps from the audience in the process. The sight of Hogwarts, accompanied by John Williams' familiar fanfare, elicits applause.
And not for nothing? Law looks great as a dumbledore in bespoke tweed (Fantastic Vests and Where To Find Them!), even if seeing him so put-together evokes a twinge of sadness at the shapeless robes and chunky jewelry that we know lies in his future, just waiting to turn him into the Wizarding World's equivalent of Santa Fe Gallery owner named Jade.