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MOVIES: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Review

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When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opened in theaters two years ago, I called it "a welcome return to the universe created by J.K. Rowling." Regrettably, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald quickly wears out that welcome, doubling down on the darker elements of the previous film and barely moving the narrative needle, despite a bloated and overlong running time.

Six months have passed since the capture of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), whom we find being loaded into a thestral-drawn carriage for a prison transfer, from which he promptly escapes. This opening, set against a black sky in the midst of a torrential downpour, might have been exciting if it were possible to discern what the hell is happening amid the messy CG and barrage of lightning-fast camera cuts - the "black on black on black" motif immediately draws comparisons to the climactic fight scene in Venom, which may have just been usurped as the year's most incomprehensible action sequence.

As Grindelwald gathers his followers - and commands one to murder a toddler along the way, lest there be any ambiguity about his evil nature - Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) petitions the Ministry of Magic to lift his international travel ban so that he might continue research for his book. Despite his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) serving on the board, Newt's request is denied, but no matter - Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) tasks Newt with a covert mission to track down the missing Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), currently adrift in Paris as he searches for information about his past. Newt's adventure finds him reconnecting with returning characters Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) as they race to find the boy before he falls into Grindelwald's clutches.

Despite J.K. Rowling and David Yates returning to the franchise (as screenwriter and director, respectively), The Crimes of Grindelwald feels remarkably disconnected to the eight Harry Potter films, and even the existing Fantastic Beasts installment. The rules of this universe, which should be well-established at this point, feel as though they're being discarded, rewritten and made up on the fly. Take, for example, the previous film's most heartbreaking moment, where Jacob's memory of Queenie is erased by an obliviate spell - you would be understandably confused when the happy couple arrives on Newt's doorstep as though this had never taken place. And while the film does acknowledge the occurrence of the event, it's explained away and retconned out of existence with a single line of dialogue.

As the clear "big bad" of this new series, Depp is surprisingly restrained in his portrayal of Grindelwald. Sure, the spiky, bleached hair and mismatched irises are a little difficult to take seriously, but his performance feels particularly reined in when compared to his last appearance in a studio tentpole. Perhaps Depp has toned it down a bit too much, as Grindelwald seems to lack the charisma the film so desperately wants you to believe he possesses: several characters warn of his ability to persuade and manipulate, but even when he's shown delivering a speech to a room full of devout followers, there's nothing particularly alluring on display.

This sequence, however, is disturbing for another reason. As we listen to Grindelwald proclaim that his way is the only path toward "freedom and truth" and that the time has come for his army to "rise up and take our rightful place," that he doesn't hate the Muggle and the No-Maj but believes they "have their place," it's clear that Rowling is drawing parallels to the tenets of white nationalism, as frequently espoused at right-wing rallies. That these comments are delivered by a character with blonde hair and pale white skin surely can't be coincidental.

As the second film in a planned series of five, The Crimes of Grindelwald offers up plenty of expository dialogue, and the occasional action setpiece that, like its predecessor, is often diminished by the disappointing visual effects on its menagerie of magical beings. There's also a bit of fan service, including multiple trips to Hogwart's and the introduction of an important figure in Potter lore, but there's very little in the way of real storytelling. Nearly everything that occurs here is just to lay the groundwork for events yet to come, leaving this reviewer to ponder how a film with so much talking can actually say so very little.

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