After the collective sigh of relief that the first Fantastic Beasts movie was decent, how does its successor hold up?
As a die-hard Harry Potter fan, there’ll always be a feeling of excitement when a new piece of media in that universe comes out. Sometimes that excitement ends up sadly misplaced – thanks a lot The Cursed Child – but for the most part, Rowling’s Wizarding World, as it’s now become, has paid dividends.
2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a pleasantly diverting trip into the deeper mythos of the universe, and took the focus from the modern day resurgence of He Who Must Not Be Named to the cheerier, naive 1920s before everything went horrible and paranoid. As fans of the series know, there’s a rather significant magic conflict on the horizon alongside the real historical events of the 1930s and 1940s, and in The Crimes of Grindelwald it’s made clear that all roads are leading to that fateful moment in the Wizarding World‘s history.
In fact, there’s an awful lot of setup in TCoG (calling it that from now to save my poor fingers) without all that much pay-off to show for it. The two questions I asked myself after leaving the screening was: “What was the plot?” and “who was the main character?”; on both points, I’m sorry to say I came up short. While the film is full of things happening visually, the story is incredibly thin and the sheer amount of characters that come and go leave the film a bit of an incoherent mess.
One of the best things about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the relative lack of anything that could be considered fan service, with the threat of Grindelwald present but never overplayed – anything else mentioned there felt relevant to the overall story and not simply shoehorned in.
With TCoG, Rowling has decided to take the series into full-blown prequel mode. This means plenty of references to characters past and present, even if there’s no narrative logic in doing so. As has already been revealed in promotional material, Nagini and Nicolas Flamel are both present throughout but neither have any actual purpose. Possibly the worst victim of this is Nagini though, who for some baffling reason just had to be a shapeshifter whose human form was sexy lady in tight clothes. For someone who gave popular culture one of its most recognisable independent female characters, who was always taken at the value of her intellect and bravery, it’s a totally unnecessary inclusion and one that felt quite frankly reductive.
While the script and story left a very sour taste in my mouth, no fault can be found in anyone’s performance here. While it’s a bloated cast to say the least, everyone involved puts in a solid job – even Johnny Depp who is famous for phoning it in at this stage of his career gives a hypnotic and interesting turn as Gellert Grindelwald. The very best of course comes from Jude Law as young Dumbledore, who leaves a great impression despite being in the film for very little of its running time. With three – THREE – films yet in this series, I hope that Rowling et al will give him a lot more to do.
The ultimate appeal of this film, as with most modern blockbusters, is in its visuals. TCoG‘s opening sequence and climax are both brilliantly realised through some stunning visual effects. Although the story fails to sparkle, the film overall definitely comes alive through its CGI – the scenes with any magical animals are much more sparse than before but no less enjoyable, and late 1920s Paris – albeit only superficially – is a treat.
Genuinely wonderful moments are few and far between here, but when the film gets it right, including a very well judged flashback between young Newt and young Leta Lestrange, it’s baffling to believe that the remainder of the running time could feel so wrong.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is without doubt the series’ beast of burden, designed to get all of its moving parts exactly where they need to be for future instalments, but making it so has ended up losing what made the first so fantastic. Here’s hoping that Fantastic Beasts 3 gets the series’ groove back, and avoids getting the series into so much more of a tangle that even a Bowtruckle would struggle to break through.