It is genuinely difficult to understand how Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald could have turned out so badly. This is, after all, the tenth movie in what I guess is officially being called the Wizarding World franchise, after eight Harry Potters and 2016's Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and one of the hallmarks of the series across its first fifteen years of existence was an eerie, unerring consistency. Even the ones that aren't any damn good - 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - are still competent (that is maybe, in fact, why those first two aren't any damn good: because they have made such an all-consuming fetish object out of raw, hackish competence), and one of the great gifts of series producer David Heyman has always been his inerrant ability to make sure the things are all functional and always in more or less the same way.

So, I mean, really: what the fuck? The simple solution is to note that the biggest, baddest problem is that the screenplay is a structural disaster, with no sense of rhythm or cohesion, and a critical inability to go more than one molecule below the surface of any of the characters, and lay all the blame at the feet of novelist-turned-screenwriter J.K. Rowling, who has been leaking talent at a relatively consistent rate for years now, but that simply won't do. Aye, the screenplay is viciously bad, and it is viciously bad in exactly the way you'd expect from a creator who has evolved beyond having people around to tell her "no". But everything is bad. David Yates has directed six of these movies now, and Mark Day has edited the same six, and yet they've still managed to completely flatline; cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is a relative franchise newbie, having only shot the first Fantastic Beasts, but he's still a professional and a professional should know better than some of the gunky, murky shots that litter this film. Honestly, the only person who isn't operating at a substantially lower level than he has been in the other films of the series is production designer Stuart Craig, the rock upon which all other aspects of the Wizarding World have been founded, and who once again comes up with some lovely, imaginative spaces - though even he doesn't bother to take more than cursory advantage of the iconography of 1920s Paris, where the bulk of the film takes place.

So, Fanatastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - which among all its other sins has one of the absolute worst titles of any franchise in film recent memory, first because the "fantastic beasts" tie-in really has fuck-all to do with anything, second because of that aggressively "fans only, please" subtitle - starts some six months after Where to Find Them, with recently-revealed wizard arch-criminal Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) about to undergo extradition from the U.S. wizards' headquarters in New York City to its English counterpart, in a moment of great crisis. Seems that Grindelwald's appeals to pureblood magic users' innate sense of superiority have found a lot of purchase across the wizarding globe, and even in the halls of the magic bureaucracy, pro-Grindwelwald factions have been springing up. It thus comes as little surprise when, after the fashion of all prisoner transfers in the movies, this all turns out to be a perfect opportunity for Grindelwald to escape, which he does over the course of one of the most truly shitty action setpieces in memory, a chaotic blend of hardly any lighting, an egregious amount of particle effects (it's raining), too much choppy cutting, and lightning flashes that randomly bathe everything in white without doing anything to make it more legible. In fact, it is almost better when it's just fucking dark.

Three months later, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has unsuccessfully appealed to have his right to travel outside of Great Britain restored, when he's approached by an old teacher. Seems that Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Professor in Defense Against the Dark Arts at the Hogwarts magic school, is looking for someone he can trust to investigate the goings-on in Paris, where the incredibly powerful, untrained magic user Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), with whom Newt crossed paths in the last movie, may have traveled. More out of a desire to track down his old girlfriend, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) than to do good in the world - he is committed to apoliticism - Newt travels to France illicitly, along with his non-magical friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who is dating Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), though they are currently in a bad spot, given her rather drastic attempts to trick him into marrying him against the ironclad rules that magic users and normal humans may not wed.

This isn't a plot: this is a situation. And sadly, across 134 sluggish minutes, The Crimes of Grindelwald will never develop into more than a situation. Not in Not in the most hideously mediocre moments of the most brazenly hackish comic book movie do the filmmakers allow themselves to so very openly admit that the entire purpose of their feature-length film is to get all the chess pieces on the board for the next feature film. And I frankly suppose that Fantastic Beasts 3, which of course is already hurtling towards its November 2020 release date, is just going to be more of the same: many, many random globs of exposition, in-jokes, shocking revelations that only a dedicated franchise fan could care about (Nagini used to be a human! Do you care? Cause I sure as balls don't care. And if you don't know who Nagini is, The Crimes of Grindelwald has literally no use for you whatsoever), ugly, incomprehensible setpieces that involve the same goddamn light show fight mechanics of every Harry Potter for over a decade, all of this noisy, messy stuff serving to do nothing at all besides carve a channel from this film's climactic twist to the next climactic twist. Just exactly like The Crimes of Grindelwald is interesting in doing absolutely nothing but connecting its own climactic twist to Where to Find Them's horrifying reveal that we were getting four films of Johnny Depp rather than five films of Colin Farrell, by whatever clunky, dithering means necessary.

It's not that The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn't have a story; it's just that it doesn't really have stakes, conflict, momentum, or an arc. And without those things, the story is basically just a whole bunch of way stations as people with no clear reason for doing so march over here, and then march over there, and fight this thing, and declaim this monologue about righteousness or evil. Mind you, this isn't new territory for the franchise: at least five of the eight Harry Potter films are basically just "this happened and this happened and this happened" exercises. But those have a flair for craft, a certain sense of big, blustering popcorn movie grandiosity filtered through the work of some wholly overqualified cinematographers, and with fun little nuggets given to most of the United Kingdom's best actors. The Crimes of Grindelwald has actors - Law, in particular, is a good addition; he's playing Dumbledore as a young version of Richard Harris (who played the character as a kind old man in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets), rather than as a young version of the character, and he's doing a pretty great job of it; his Dumbledore is a hard-edged but warm-hearted politician, sly and witty, and the only sense we get that Rowling's off-book rambling about the character's homosexuality is canon comes from the way Law pounces on the line "More than brothers" - but it sure as hell doesn't have craft. Besides being unreasonably dark, the film is edited like hell; there's a conversation between some characters in a hallway fairly early on where seemingly every last damn cut introduces some new error of eyeline matching or spatial position or God knows what else.

Between the sloppiness of the filmmaking, and the disengagement of pretty much all the non-Law cast members (Depp at least takes the role very fucking seriously, which is near enough the same thing as acting well; Redmayne and Waterston are both actively not trying, particularly the former, who has exactly one way of positioning his body that he uses without fail throughout the feature), and the lack of any sort of reasonable connection between scenes, the film is a brutal, hateful trudge. It has absolutely not the slightest sense of narrative: there's an entire, very long, very inexplicable action sequence after the film has climaxed and resolved the thing it has instead of a central conflict, and it goes on forever. It can't keep track of its MacGuffin, and deals with it basically by nesting no fewer than three twists inside one fairly basic question of who is who else's long-lost brother. It goes nowhere, and goes there extremely slowly, and it bleaches out every modicum of magical awe this franchise ever had in doing it.

On the other hand, it has a very good kitty-dragon and for this I am grateful.