The first Fantastic Beasts film - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) - was a pleasant surprise. It was essentially something from nothing: a film based on a limited spin-off of the Harry Potter books, which was itself based on nothing more than the aforementioned title and an odd name, mentioned in passing in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), the very first Harry Potter story. This lack of established dogma afforded Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling anomalous creative scope, and she crafted a story that retained the essence and imagination of her magical world, but viewed from a more mature and enquiring perspective. A dear friend of mine dubbed it ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups’. This is a suitably succinct yet apt description of a film that was both monetarily and critically successful, and served as the beginning of a new prequel saga set within the established wizarding world of Harry Potter.
The sequel - The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) - is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a rather different beast. The eponymous Gellert Grindelwald was an elusive presence in the first film. In the second he is granted lease, and he is a suitably charismatic figure, played with delicious menace by Johnny Depp. The controversies surrounding his private life notwithstanding, it is clear Depp was a savvy choice for the new magical Übermensch-gone-bad. The character is far from subtle, and arguably lacks some of the dread of Colin Farrell’s veiled interpretation from the first film, but Depp brings a murderous-yet-seductive quality to Grindelwald’s fascistic message of wizarding supremacy born of necessity. His argument is broader, yet grounded in genuine worldly trauma, and is more sympathetic than that espoused by his obvious parallel - Lord Voldemort - and by the end of the film it is clear this is a conflict that will rage for years to come.
The emergence of Grindelwald is symbolic of the film as a whole. The first Fantastic Beasts was content to use the aesthetics of Rowling’s rich mythology in a more refined manner, confining itself to gentle (if tantalising) references and oblique parallels. The film was propelled by its engaging characters and an irresistibly charming story. The second film dispenses with this approach. Newt Scamander returns, played once more with elegance and quirky appeal by Eddie Redmayne, but this new film cannot indulge him, or his myriad magnificent monsters, with anything like the same potency of the first film. There simply isn’t time to dwell on specifics, as a veritable bevy of old and new characters are thrust into the fray. Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski naturally returns, and he is as likeable as ever. Sadly said return is abrupt, predictable and contrived, existing to basically plonk both Jacob and Alison Sudol’s exquisite Queenie, back in our laps as quickly as possible. This does a disservice to both characters (and their relationship), and irrevocably cheapens the consequences of their original parting.
The process of reunions is no better served with Queenie’s sister - and Newt’s love interest from the first film - Tina, though this might have something to do with Katherine Waterston. She gives a strangely mechanical, lethargic performance, and is overshadowed by the always-thickening narrative. This is a loquacious motion picture, leaden with exposition and the burden of necessary understanding. This is a limited criticism, as it is foolish to expect to fully grasp a story of this ilk without proper, deliberate initiation. Nevertheless, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a dense film. It proffers continuous information within a story existing to service fans of 'Harry Potter', to the extent that simply watching the first film is almost aggressively insufficient.
One area where the film most definitely indulges itself is in returning us to Hogwarts. The castle remains breathtaking, and the various halls and classrooms have lost none of their nostalgic power. Only here could Albus Dumbledore be properly reintroduced (even if we do meet him a little earlier in the story!). Jude Law undertakes the challenge of realising a younger, rawer vision of one of the most beloved characters of British fiction. His Dumbledore is powerful and intelligent yet restrained and empathetic, and humorously off-kilter. When considering Grindelwald he is possessed of a saturnine longing, and the undeniable hint of lost love. It is a lovely, controlled performance that deserves the opportunity to evolve. As vivid and informative as the Hogwarts-based asides are though, they are an extravagance, slowing the pace of the film to a jarring crawl.
Much has been made of the rumoured reimagining of certain characters from the extant 'Harry Potter' franchise. This represents an unfortunate folly of prequels: the temptation to reference familiar events or characters, and The Crimes of Grindelwald is guilty of naked tokenism in this regard. To wit, the less said about a certain Hogwarts-based cameo the better. It serves no purpose beyond antagonising the more ardent elements of the fanbase, and I am surprised J.K. Rowling allowed such transparent pandering to proceed. A certain other character is intriguing but mostly purposeless in her new guise, and this film uses our curiosity as nothing more than padding, in the renewed exploration of Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone. Credence remains sympathetic if unnerving, but in this film his journey consists of stalling and unworthy misdirection. Significant attention is also given to the character of Leta Lestrange - played with surprising poise by Zoë Kravitz - a previously-referenced character with an infamous heritage. She is a romantic focal point, concentrating the awkward relationship between Newt and his brother Theseus (as played by Callum Turner), and her journey is arguably the film’s dramatic highpoint.
The Crimes of Grindelwald eventually concludes in a rather understated fashion, providing us glimpses of Grindelwald’s increasing popular appeal, and overwhelming magical prowess. It also reframes the series with a more straightforward ‘good versus evil/us versus them’ dynamic. There is an affecting and unexpected switch of allegiance alongside a bizarre revelation, and overt hints of where the franchise is seeking to travel next, but as 'Harry Potter' fans are doubtless aware, this is a tale with a preordained ending. Director David Yates is by now very clear on his role, and the film is capably constructed and, aesthetically speaking, impressive to behold, incorporating multiple exciting set pieces. The desire to showcase iconic locales without resorting to cliché is admirable. In the end though, it is very different to the first Fantastic Beasts. That was a compelling and unique film residing within an established universe, and it was a self-contained story that began, explored and resolved itself without assistance. The Crimes of Grindelwald is as much prequel to Harry Potter as it is sequel to its predecessor. It exists above all to serve the fanbase. This is fine; necessary even, to better establish a franchise. However, given the standalone bravery of the first Fantastic Beasts, this truth is perhaps just a tad dispiriting.
| To be continued... |