An excruciating bore just barely enlivened by stray glimpses of Hogwarts, a flicker of gay romance and a menagerie of computer-generated creepy-crawlies, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is enough to make J.K. Rowling fans weep in frustration, provided they can even keep their eyes open. Presumably Rowling, her fellow producers and the top brass at Warner Bros. were thinking about those fans — meaning their capacity for pleasure and enchantment, not just their pocketbooks — when they decided to launch a series of prequels to their justly celebrated Harry Potter cycle.
Then again, who knows what they were thinking, judging by 2016’s rickety “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which was written for the screen by Rowling herself and directed by David Yates with none of the grave, elegant atmospherics he brought to bear on the last four Potter films. Their collaboration seems to have actually worsened with this movie, the second installment of a projected five-feature franchise. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is somehow both hectic and leaden, a thing of exhausting, pummeling mediocrity. It offers up dazzling feats of sorcery and realms of wonderment (early 20th-century London and Paris among them) and manages to conjure the very opposite of magic.
Once again we are in the charmless company of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, mannered), the misfit wizard and magizoologist who keeps company with little green plant creatures called Bowtruckles and cute kleptomaniac platypuses called Nifflers. Unfortunately, Newt is also at the center of a grindingly complicated plot that anticipates the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione by decades.
The year is 1927, during the tense and thematically convenient period between two world wars: The whispers of violent unrest that hovered over the previous movie have taken on more tangible, menacing shape, as a growing conspiracy of dark wizards seeks to subjugate the entire Muggle world to magical rule. The leader of that conspiracy is Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a notorious dark wizard who long ago was a close friend, ally and possible love interest of the great Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, rocking a waistcoat).
The Grindelwald we see now has platinum-blond spikes, a bad case of cataracts and a faint air of the washed-up rock star about him, and he seems well beyond the reach of romance. As for Depp, whose casting has been alternately criticized and defended in light of allegations of domestic violence, he at least seems at ease playing the bad guy on screen, and slips smoothly behind the shell of someone else’s villainy. His Grindelwald is about what you’d expect from this child’s-play franchise, sour, diverting and sinister if never particularly scary.
Captured by the U.S. Ministry of Magic at the end of the first “Fantastic Beasts,” Grindelwald stages a daring mid-air escape at the beginning of the new one, in a runaway stagecoach sequence that sets an unfortunate dramatic pattern: energy without excitement, spectacle without impact. His disappearance unleashes shock waves within the international wizarding community, galvanizing the powerful British sorcerers known as Aurors (think of them as the counter-terrorism unit), among them Newt’s more straight-laced and respectable brother, Theseus (Callum Turner).
Theseus is engaged to his brother’s former love, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), which doesn’t complicate matters as much as you might think, Newt being mostly preoccupied with his underwater kelp monster and a very large, multi-hued feline called a Zouwu. Occasionally Newt will cast a meaningfully awkward stare in the direction of another Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who’s back from the first picture along with her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and a boisterous Muggle tag-along, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
Queenie and Jacob often seem to be starring in a different, potentially more interesting movie: a Depression-era romantic comedy, perhaps, or a version of “The Honeymooners” where Alice Kramden keeps trying to erase Ralph’s memory. At some point I began to wonder if my own mind had been partially Obliviated, given my vague sense of having encountered these characters before, though under circumstances too frenetic and insistently whimsical to leave much of an impression.
Admittedly, it would be difficult to fully eradicate the image of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller in a near-silent turn), a troubled, repressed young wizard who proves crucial to Grindelwald’s dastardly plot, and who is watched over by a sympathetic young woman and serpentine shapeshifter known as Nagini (Claudia Kim). Potter scholars eager for a narrative foothold will prick up their ears at the mention of names like Nagini and Lestrange, which Rowling sprinkles like bread crumbs amid the swirling camerawork, cluttered production design and increasingly tangled mythology.
A more gratifying throwback is the sight of Law’s dashing young Dumbledore, already a great wizard and professor at Hogwarts, whose candlelit great hall and stunning palatial grounds beckon to us like an oasis. In these moments the movie slows down and lingers for a spell, though one that’s broken far too quickly: We get a quick, teasing flashback to Dumbledore and Grindelwald in their more carefree days, forming a kind of supernatural blood pact with the barest suggestion of an erotic charge.
I imagine that some parental scolds will take issue with even this faint reference to a gay relationship in a blockbuster geared toward younger viewers — a complaint that feels not just homophobic but hypocritical, since inconvenient matters of romance and sexuality were not exactly irrelevant to the Potter series. Nor, for that matter, was the topic of repression, as Rowling’s entire universe was predicated on the careful concealment of magical abilities from the Muggle world. Should the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship ever make its way fully out of the narrative closet, the next three “Fantastic Beasts” movies might do well to explore that resonant subtext. With any luck, they might even be good.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’
In English and French with English subtitles
Rated: PG-13, for some sequences of fantasy action
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes