Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ought to thrill Harry Potter fans. It feels like much more of Potter prequel than its predecessor, featuring several locations visited in those films as well a number of the characters and even one cast member. It also builds on some of the important magical history mentioned in the books and movies.
Unfortunately like the weakest of the Potter films it also feels like it has more story than it can comfortably fit in its running time. The first three of the Daniel Radcliffe movies were okay in this respect, based as they were on novels all less than 320 pages, but Goblet of Fire really struggled to fits its 636 pages into less than three hours. That film was like a narrative sprint with nothing able to develop at a good pace and to a lesser extent The Half Blood Prince faltered in the same way. Cinematically these films were less than satisfying. The four best Harry Potter films are the third, where the kids and the storytelling had both matured a little, the sixth where the book actually had quite a lot of excess plot that could be chopped out quite easily, and the final two that divided the last of J. K. Rowling’s heavy tomes between them.
Curiously The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from having both too much story to get through and not enough. There is a huge amount of background information surrounding the events playing out on screen but very little actually happens. Once again there is just so much stuff in Rowling’s head that nothing but a weighty book can capture it. (Even the London stage play is split into two parts.) I admire Rowling’s work immensely and I devoured every page of Potter but the larger story of Dumbledore and his battle against dark wizards is beginning to buckle under weight of its own mythology.
Sadly the greatest casualty of this is the four central characters from the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. One of the best things about that movie was the dynamic between Newt, Porpentina, Queenie and Jacob but here they feel to some extent like bystanders in their own film. Eddie Redmayne’s protagonist doesn’t so much drive the plot as walk through it and the others, with the possible exception of Queenie, really do just follow him. The only player from the previous movie with a really important part to play here is Ezra Miller’s Credence.
Instead the most significant relationship is one we heard about from the back of a chocolate frog card way back during Harry’s initial trip to Hogwarts, that of Albus Dumbledore and the film’s title character Gellert Grindelwald. At no point do you really see Jude Law and Johnny Depp on screen together but they are the two main forces behind everything that happens here. Both actors excel, yes even Depp, and without them this would be a much less engaging film. There has been criticism of the movie for being afraid to explore the suggestion that these men had once been romantically involved but actually I thought this was made pretty obvious. This aspect featured as is appropriate to the plot and in keeping with what we already know of Dumbledore and his private nature.
Of course what this movie also has is beautiful set, costume and of course creature design as well as great special effects and thrilling action sequences. That heavily layered history is also never less than interesting.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (time to drop the first part of that title now) does feel like it is setting up a bigger story, some of which we know and much of which we are intrigued to find out. J. K. Rowling remains a master storyteller but working as screenwriter here I do have to say that she hasn’t yet mastered this medium. The performances are all strong and the direction assured but based on these first two films the story is both this series greatest ally and its overbearing enemy. The ongoing narrative is a power too mighty to be railed in or contained. It is the one magical beast Newt Scamander has yet to tame.
The Ripley Factor:
While Katherine Waterston’s Tina is marginalised, Zoe Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange has an important part to play and proves to be complex and courageous. Hermione remains Rowling’s greatest female hero but these stories continue to have strong females both at their and as their heart.
Is this one for the kids?
Sorry for the minor spoiler here but a kid gets killed quite near the beginning and at this point I thought that things had got quite dark. Then I remembered that this whole story started with the attempted murder of a baby. If your children are okay with the threat and violence in the later Potter movies then they’ll be fine with this one.