Review – ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is as frustrating as it is spectacular

Poster for 2018 fantasy sequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Genre: Fantasy
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 16th November 2018
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: David Yates
Writer: JK Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Alison Sudol, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller
Synopsis: Evading a Ministry-imposed travel ban, Newt Scamander makes his way to Paris in order to track down Credence Barebone, who has become a target for the dark wizard Grindelwald.

 

 

Two years ago, with a flick of her magic wand, JK Rowling revived the world she created with the Harry Potter books, dragging us a century back from Harry’s triumph over Voldemort to 1920s New York for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It quickly became apparent that Rowling had more than a dorky animal lover and some adorable critters on her mind, with the spectre of villainous proto-Voldy and Dumbledore’s former beau Gellert Grindelwald running through the narrative. He’s no longer in the background for this sequel, which puts him in the title and puts Johnny Depp into the role, with all of the quite horrible baggage he brings along in 2018.

Any pretence around the movie’s identity is abandoned by the ‘Wizarding World’ shared universe logo that precedes it and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald benefits in a number of ways from its expanded canvas. All of the major players from the first film are back, albeit in slightly different contexts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has finished his book, but is confined to the UK unless he accepts an offer to work under his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner) in tracking down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who survived the first film’s explosive climax and still harbours the latent danger of the dark Obscurus within him.

Newt refuses this job, but finds himself heading to Credence’s hideout in a Paris circus for three reasons. Firstly, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) has enlisted him to go after Credence in order to scupper a Grindelwald plan. There’s also the fact that Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), separated from Newt after a misunderstanding involving his ex Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), is on Credence’s tail and, finally, Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) wants to find Tina so he can be reunited with his girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), with whom he has argued over the prospect of an illegal Muggle-witch marriage.

If that sounds like a lot of plot, you don’t yet know the half of it. To argue that The Crimes of Grindelwald is over-stuffed would be the understatement of the century because what Rowling has produced is a dense fantasy epic, drenched in reams of wizarding lore and often rather leaden slabs of exposition. It doesn’t help matters that much of this exposition is delivered by Depp, who pitches his Grindelwald at the point of intersection between Voldemort, Jack Sparrow and Mortdecai. Rowling’s literary background could scarcely be more obvious in scenes that essentially feel like people reading pages of a novel to each other.

But with that said, director David Yates does not scrimp on spectacle. The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with a stunning prison escape sequence and is littered with glittering set pieces, including a terrific scene that pits demonic feline guards at the French Ministry of Magic against the leonine Chinese Zouwu beast. There are also memorable scenes for many of the standout critters from the first film, including Pickett the Bowtruckle and the mischievous Niffler, which has since spawned an entire family of so-cute-I-wanted-to-die offspring. The sets, too, are a triumph, with three separate centres of magical government given their own distinct edifices of glossy beauty.

Speaking of iconic Potter edifices, this film also features the return of Hogwarts. As the goosebumps-inducing beauty of John Williams’s ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ blares from the speakers and the camera swoops through the school’s hallways, it’s like we’ve never been away. It’s into this world that Jude Law twinkles as a younger Albus Dumbledore, nailing the character’s unique brand of charm and self-assured mystery as a contrast to the measured and likeably dorky naivete of Redmayne as a man who declares “I don’t do sides” when presented with conflict. While it’s true that the romantic side of Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald is never explicitly discussed, there’s enough pointed implication here to suggest it will be a key part of future installments in the franchise.

Johnny Depp as the titular villain in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Johnny Depp as the titular villain in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

And it’s future installments that this episode of the Fantastic Beasts saga consistently points towards. This whistlestop tour of crucial characters means that the likes of Waterston, Fogler and the potentially very intriguing Kravitz are left entirely to one side. It’s Alison Sudol, as Queenie, who perhaps gets the movie’s most interesting and unexpected arc – one she portrays with a depth beyond her comic relief turn first time around. The film is a deluge of information, delivered through an infuriatingly low-stakes plot, that seems to exist solely to position pieces on the wizard’s chess board for the movies to come. This is particularly egregious in the final few scenes, in which the movie decides to wave cheerio to any sort of storytelling logic and take a dive off of Gryffindor Tower without a broomstick to break the audience’s fall.

With that in mind, it’s impossible to declare this movie to be an all-out success. As a standalone film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a frustrating cinematic experience that is almost directly hostile to anyone without an in-depth knowledge of Rowling’s wide-ranging mythos. However, it’s impossible to divorce the movie from what has come before and what we know will come afterwards. The in-built knowledge and love many of us have for this world will paper over some of the cracks in Rowling’s storytelling, while the fact there are still three movies to come suggests that loose threads, of which there are enough to knit a pretty impressive duvet, will be tied together neatly.

It’s only blind loyalty that’s keeping me clinging to my copy of Hogwarts: A History with enthusiasm at this point. The Crimes of Grindelwald is a faith-shaker of a movie, but one that does just enough to emerge as an enjoyable fantasy blockbuster. Rowling hasn’t quite gone full George Lucas in her gap-filling revisionism yet, but we’re only a midichlorian or two away.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

David Yates keeps the Wizarding World on the rails in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, despite a JK Rowling script that’s more book than movie and gets lost in the sheer scale of its own ambition. Johnny Depp is a troubling addition, but Jude Law sparkles as Dumbledore and Eddie Redmayne is charming all over again.

The ending is a shocker in every sense of the word, reshuffling the deck and manoeuvring everyone into the positions they need to be in for the movies to come. Fans, though, will have faith like me that Rowling knows what she’s doing. This is her canvas, and she’ll paint it how she likes.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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