‘The Crimes Of Grindelwald’ is a messy mix of confusing Harry Potter fan service

Ten, seven, even three years ago, it would’ve been totally inconceivable to me that a new film written by J.K Rowling, partially set at Hogwarts, featuring an origin story for Albus Dumbledore, would be something I would have to drag myself out of bed on a Friday to attend a free screening of. I am a man who went to my fair share of Harry Potter midnight release events in my day. And yet I couldn’t even try to get excited about a movie called Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — even the title being a miscalculated hybrid of two angles on Rowling’s Wizarding World. To stick Newt Scamander, gentle zoologist, and Grindelwald, effectively Magic Hitler, on a poster together is akin to making a Star Wars prequel that focuses on both Senator Palpatine and Lando Calrissian. It’s confusing, it’s unnecessary and everyone would rather you didn’t.

And so it is, as with the first Fantastic Beasts film from 2016, that we have half an interesting adventure set in a pre-Potter alternate society of witchcraft and warlock politicking, and half a needless and tedious children’s comedy about adorable CGI animals running amok. Crimes sets the balance a little further in the right direction, but there are still plentiful stretches of this film that involve nothing but Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler Pokemon Go-ing their way through various international destinations catching little monsters with five-syllable names. Gotta sells toys for Christmas, I guess.

But, at the same time, Rowling is trying (though not that hard, apparently) to establish hints to a gay romance between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (Jude Law and Johnny Depp) without — y’know — going so far that conservative assholes won’t buy their kids those toys (‘going so far’, in this case, seems to be Acknowledging It In Any Overt Way Whatsoever). Law gives the most neutral, timid and forgettable performance of his career here; trapped between trying to impersonate Michael Gambon and imbuing the role with some homosexual pining, his Dumbledore is just a costume without a character.

Depp, it must be said with some reservations, brings a snatch of desperately-needed presence to this film, his well-documented greasiness creates an atmosphere of discomfort whenever he’s in a scene; it may be unintentional, but it’s one of few areas where the film is in any way affecting. His band of sinister accomplices leaves one longing for Alan Rickman’s Snape to show up and demonstrate how to be genuinely sinister. No wonder he spends this film seeking the assistance of Credence (Ezra Miller), a character those who saw the first Beasts only once will no doubt have forgotten exists.

Ezra Miller, one imagines, could have had a decent career gathering Best Supporting Actor nominations in midsize character dramas until he found one great role. Instead, he’s become a poster boy for expensive Warner Bros failures, a peripheral presence in both their Justice League and Beasts franchises. In this, he’s borderline depressing to watch; he’s just too angry and sad for a movie with “Fantastic” in the title; it’s not even powerful sad, it’s just unpleasantly miserable.

The other significant returning characters are Newt’s trio of American friends, played by Fogler, Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol. Needless to say, none of these needed to return for the sequel, least of all Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, a despicably one-dimensional love interest for Newt, who already has at least two other, more interesting potential partners.

Rowling’s persistence in creating underdeveloped female figures (wait til you see how the American Minister for Magic is treated in this film) whilst claiming to be an icon of feminist storytelling is as laughable as her claims at being a genuine progressive: characters of colour appear merely to decorate the poster, the focus remaining firmly on our white, heteronormative central cast (I’m not the sort of person who writes off films just for lacking diversity, but Rowling’s hypocrisy is particularly grating). One welcome presence is Zoe Kravitz, adopting a terrific English accent and managing to pull one likeable character from Rowling’s over-expository mess of a script. There’s a knock-off of the beautiful Snape/Lily montage from Deathly Hallows Part 2 used to tell she and Newt’s Hogwarts backstory that’s, while unoriginal, quite sweet and the highlight of the film. Similar methods of providing backstory are used numerous times as the film aims to solve mysteries nobody even knew about: “who was Credence’s birth mother?” being the most exhaustive (and least involving).

This leaves little room for action outside of the Beast business, par the opening and closing set-pieces which — with Depp at their centre — are both pretty exciting. Grindelwald starts with what’s essentially a magical spin on the extraction scene from Mission: Impossible — Fallout. It’s not comparable in quality, but it’s well-staged and has enough visual detail to maintain interest for several minutes. The film then climaxes at a big Nazi rally that features Actual Footage of World War II, the weirdest blending of real Holocaust and fantasy Holocaust since X-Men: Apocalypse touched down in Auschwitz. It’s morally murky, but I’m sure Rowling will explain the merits of it to us all.

As with the first Beasts, David Yates is allowing the production design and visual effects departments to basically lead the directing; the film fails to make any real use of its Paris location, with street sets resembling door-for-door the New York locations of Beasts 1, probably because they were shot on the exact same stages at Leavesden Studios. Even the overhead shots of Hogwarts feel incredibly manufactured, there’s just none of the sense of awe and scale that Yates — following three superior directors, it must be said — managed to capture in the later Potter years.

Yet if Grindelwald isn’t exactly a riveting fantasy masterpiece, it’s one of the more harmless $200m blockbusters to be released this year. Everything is generally pretty pleasant. It’s a hard film to hate, especially if you’re a person liable to be overcome with Potter nostalgia at any given second as I am. These movies don’t need to exist, I rather wish they didn’t, but I can’t in good faith decry them as awful or evil. Unlike Magic Hitler, who is very awful and very evil.