FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD. Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Directed by David Yates. 134 minutes. Rated M (Fantasy themes and violence).
With the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchise, world renowned author-turned-screenwriter J. K. Rowling, best known for her ‘Harry Potter’ series, set herself an unenviable task. Having already overcome the writer’s equivalent of the notorious “Difficult Second Album Syndrome” with 1998’s well-received ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, the fledgling ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchise feels like Rowling returning to record a cover of an album she already performed, a cover album by the artist responsible for the original. Revisiting the magical setting of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise, the backdrop to seven chart-conquering books and eight box office-dominating films, not to mention the fiery obsession of millions of fans globally, she paved the way for inevitable comparisons and nit-picking. With 2016’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, her imaginative expansion of one of Harry Potter’s textbooks into a richly textured, more grown-up adventure, Rowling managed to conquer the naysayers by sheer dazzling creativity. Yes, it was a world we’d seen before, and yes, the loose and chaotic screenplay reflected her lack of screenwriting experience, but the 1920s American setting, the titular menagerie and the introduction of a few new and compelling characters gave audiences something new to sink their teeth into, resulting in a welcome return to the newly dubbed “Wizarding World”. Sadly though, follow-up ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ isn’t quite as fantastic – it’s passably entertaining and sure to tide Potterheads over for the next two years, but the continuing series will need some refocusing to recapture the magic of past outings.
This film takes the action back to Europe, where the pro-magic zealot Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who was revealed as the true villain of the first movie, has vanished after escaping the custody of the American wizarding government. We meet a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who at this point is just a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at magical school Hogwarts (rather than the wizened headmaster that audiences will come to know), and who enlists the support of his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to track the dark wizard down. Why can’t Dumbledore go after Grindelwald himself, you might ask. Well, because the pair share a very hush-hush past. Why is Newt, a specialist in magical creatures, the best person to take on the world’s most powerful wizard, rather than someone like Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), a trained Auror, or dark wizard catcher? Well, this pill you’ll just have to swallow for the sake of the plot.
When mind-reading witch Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her muggle suitor Jacob (Dan Fogler) show up on Newt’s doorstep in London, he learns that Queenie’s sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), a government official with whom he shared a spark, has gone to Paris in pursuit of Credence (Ezra Miller), a powerful but untrained wizard rumoured to be the subject of a long-gestating prophecy. After a lovers’ quarrel, Queenie disappears to Paris to find comfort with sister, leaving Newt and Jacob to follow them. Learning that Credence has been travelling with a circus currently set up in the French capital, Grindelwald too makes for the City of Love, though he’s got something far more sinister on his mind: revolution.
Much like the first ‘Fantastic Beasts’, the amount of plot and new ideas and characters and world building that Rowling packs into two hours is astonishing, bordering on draining. Working once more with veteran director David Yates, who helmed the last four ‘Harry Potter’ films and ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, she does her best to maintain an epic scope, even when the plot starts to feel like a bit like pure filler, introducing or shuffling its players to service what might happen in the next instalment rather than what’s happening in this one (Warner Brothers have announced that there will be five ‘Fantastic Beasts’ films). Some highlights from the first film are recycled (remember Newt coaxing the enormous Erumpent into his magical briefcase, or the scene-stealing Nifflers and Bowtruckles), but she largely works to add more to the world’s lore, even if it doesn’t quite gel with everything that we already think we know (it will take some slick storytelling to iron out the bumps left by this film’s shocking twist ending…). Yates too has some new tricks up his sleeve, from DP Philippe Rousselot’s newfound love of playing with shallow focus, to composer James Newton Howard’s more experimental and engaging score.
The returning cast all slip comfortably back into their roles, with the lead foursome particularly impressing. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne makes Newt and unlikely but oddly likable hero, all awkward interactions and daffy waddling, soft-spoken and hidden behind an unruly fringe. His chemistry with Katherine Waterston sells their emotional connection, which is lucky because the screenplay doesn’t really give it much further explanation or development. Waterston too makes a very buttoned down, dorky character quite charming. Alison Sudol’s Queenie remains irrepressibly sweet (though her character gets the most drastic and interesting arc in this instalment), and Dan Fogler continues to steal the show with Jacob’s shocked reactions to the marvellous wizarding world to which he is gradually introduced. Elsewhere, Johnny Depp makes Grindelwald an effectively creepy villain, and Jude Law’s Dumbledore is as dashing as most book readers have probably long believed. The pick of the newcomers is Brontis Jodorowsky, whose Nicolas Flamel (a name that will be familiar to fans of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) is a kooky hoot. Fellow franchise recruit Zoë Kravitz, who plays Newt’s former flame and Theseus’ current fiancé Leta Lestrange, doesn’t quite make the same impression, getting too tied up in the British accent and trying to exude allure to develop Leta beyond her importance to the plot.
As this review should make clear, ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is a mixed bag. Like Newt’s magical suitcase, it’s stuffed full of ideas and interesting characters, but it lacks a compelling or logical structure and frankly has a bit too much going on inside. Rowling is blessed by the strength of her own creation, because any time spent exploring her Wizarding World is time that I consider well spent, but one hopes that she doesn’t continue to test the limits of this maxim. What ‘Fantastic Beasts 3’ needs is a bit of spring cleaning – someone to muck out the hay and fill the aquatic creatures’ tanks with fresh water – and it might be the case that Rowling herself is not the best person for this task. There’s a lot of goodwill to reward and plenty of engaging story threads to follow, but Rowling’s job as their originator feels like it’s been completed. Like a phoenix birthed from the cinders, there’s plenty of potential for the franchise to rise again, but naturally it will need to be reduced to ashes first.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 15.