What happens when a children’s story is no longer for or about children? That’s the gaping hole at the heart of The Crimes of Grindelwald, the first Fantastic Beasts sequel and the latest outing from J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a solid proposition. Set in the wizarding past, it followed magical creatures’ expert, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he attempted to restore one of his menageries to its US home. Before you can say ‘Hagrid’, cute creatures are on the loose in Roaring Twenties New York, bringing Newt head to head with the US Ministry of Magic (MACUSA), and into the lives of magical sisters Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and Muggle (or ‘No-Maj’) baker Jacob Kawolski (Dan Fogler). Throw in a rare magical force, a strange boy called Credence (Ezra Miller), and the unmasking of Gellert Grindelwald – one of the most powerful wizards in magical history – and you have yourself a Quidditch-game.
In The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt’s back, grounded from international travel and turning down a nice, safe job with benefits at the Ministry, set up by his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), who is engaged to Newt’s lost love, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). At the behest of a younger, but equally twinkly and cryptic, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt heads (illegally) to Paris to look for Credence, now part of a magical circus along with Nagini (Claudia Kim), the shape-shifting Maledictus), and in search of his true family and wizarding roots.
Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), captured by MACUSA at the end of Fantastic Beasts, mounts a dramatic escape in the opening minutes. He, too, is in pursuit of Credence but also of a world where wizards take their rightful place over the No-Maj and calls upon his magical brethren to join him in realising his vision. All three collide in a showdown in the City of Lights that challenges loyalties and brings more than a few magical skeletons clattering out of the broom closet.
As a Potter fan, this should all be right up my Diagon Alley – so what’s the problem?
The Crimes of Grindelwald is a much darker film than the dazzling creature-romp of its predecessor – the opening sequence in NY reminds me of Tim Burton’s Gotham in Batman, for example. Darkness is not necessarily a bad thing but, here, it feels abrupt, more like a hand-brake turn into bleakness rather than a natural progression from where Fantastic Beasts left off. The Crimes of Grindelwald is a children’s movie with no children. Neither dark or satisfying enough as an adult take on the Harry Potter universe (save one chilling moment when Grindelwald arrives in Paris) nor playful enough to be engaging to younger audiences. It makes me wonder who exactly is this film for?
The expansion of the Fantastic Beasts story introduces a host of new faces, spawning many story threads and much busyness but curiously little meaningful character or story development. Why, for example, is the story set in Paris? There’s no root to its location – the Pere Lachaise showdown could be anywhere. I’m sure Rowling knows why – she is nothing if not thorough in her imagining of her magical universe – but the logic is not apparent, and it makes me realise just how much weight the Harry Potter books brought to their celluloid incarnations. An extraordinary storyteller, as screenwriter, she is much less sure-footed in bringing her ideas to the screen.
Although Tina, Queenie and Jacob are all back for Round 2, there’s much less for them to do in the middle of all the story and character juggling. This is a real shame – Tina was a sparky foil to Newt’s low-key persona and Queenie and Jacob’s love story brought real warmth to earlier proceedings. This time they feel like chess pieces being moved toward some undetermined future outcome – Queenie’s journey, especially, with her ability to read minds and feelings, seems unnatural and forced. Credence, despite being such an important character plot-wise, is almost side-lined – a wizardly ‘Where’s Waldo?’ – until the film’s final moments.
Law charms, though all-too-briefly, as Dumbledore. Zoe Kravitz is luminous as the tragic Leta, but spends most of the film hanging around, waiting for her big moment. A flashback to Hogwarts, where both she and Newt were social outcasts, establishes the origin of their relationship but not the extent. Was it ever requited?
Depp, as Grindelwald, is curiously stilted, literally and figuratively colourless compared to Colin Farrell’s more muscular villainous turn in the first instalment. He plays him as anti-hero out to save his people, relying on reason and persuasion (at least publicly) rather than outright tyranny, yet his big pitch to turn the wizarding community to his cause is strangely muted and underpowered. His populist message is clearly intended to echo the modern world – Grindelwald’s henchpeople are suspiciously jodhpur and jackbooted – but whereas the Harry Potter series effectively anticipated the insidious rise of evil, Fantastic Beasts merely mimics it.
Eddie Redmayne is nuanced and twitchy as unlikely protagonist Newt Scamander – it is heavily suggested he lies somewhere on the neurologically diverse spectrum – but both his and Depp’s takes on their characters feel like they belong in much quieter, Oscar season-type films, not one where the leads have to hold their own against everything a multi-million dollar CGI department can throw at them.
Newt’s magical creatures, so important in Fantastic Beasts, are little more than local colour this time around. Pickett the pocket Bowtruckle is on hand, along with a little Niffler action, a relcalcitrant Kelpie and a gorgeous Chinese dragon-like creature in the Paris circus, but these feel like afterthoughts, as though someone had got to the editing stage and then remembered the name of the franchise. If creatures aren’t the focus of the larger Fantastic Beasts journey, it does rather beg the question why anyone, much less Dumbledore, would think an introverted magical zookeeper was the best man to go up against a powerful dark wizard?
The real stars of The Crimes of Grindelwald are the special effects, as might be expected from a magical world – from Grindelwald’s escape (oddly chaotic), to the magical circus and Nagini’s transformation, Credence’s explosive emotive outbursts and Grindelwald’s final conjuring of the human world’s doomed future, as part of his bid to rule. Beautifully imagined and mostly well realised, they unfortunately throw the film’s other shortcomings into sharp relief.
Eagle-eyed Potter fans will enjoy spotting familiar names like Lestrange, Tolliver and McClaggan, as well as a rare Nicholas Flamel sighting, and Jamie Campbell Bower and Toby Regbo reprising their Deathly Hallows cameos as the teenage Grindelwald and Dumbledore, again all too briefly.
Fantastic Beasts was as disarming as an Expelliarmus charm and, as a stand-alone romp, brought parts of the Harry Potter mythology to life without over-reliance on the audience’s knowledge of the books. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, leans too heavily on a back-story that doesn’t fully exist. As a spectacle, it is as visually adroit as the previous outings, with David Yates bringing his experience at the helm of four Potter films to bear, but Crimes lacks a meaningful emotional core.
With another three sequels already in the works, I can’t help wondering where all this is going, and can the Beastly magic really last that long?