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Magic blooms… only in rare souls.

Movie

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
(2018)

 

First things first: that title. Or rather, subtitle. Since it’s indicative of some of the broader issues with the movie(s). Let’s ignore for a moment that Fantastic Beasts, as a prescriptive main title, is entirely unrepresentative of this developing prequel universe, as out of place as the nominal protagonist who comes with it. The Crimes of Grindelwald is an inert, passive, unimpressive slab of nothing. The Harry Potter sequels presented themes, mysteries or goals in their subtitles; they incited interest. Here we have a statement, regarding which we’ll be none the wiser when we’ve watched it.

You could, perhaps, see a movie The Crimes of Jack the Ripper and know you’re getting something eviscerating in return, but then you’d only really need his name to get that. There’s no hook here. If you want to impress upon the viewer urgency to see your movie, throw in a “strike” or “attack” or even, slightly more soporifically, “awaken”. Is it coincidental that the response to the movie reflects its title’s lack of vitality? Crime‘s financial prospects may turn out to be significantly less rosy than its predecessor, which were noticeably short of the Potters. If so, that’s only fair, as despite a few flourishes of ideas and performance, and a distinguished scene here or there, this is a sprawling, ungainly, faintly underwhelming beast of a sequel to a prequel.

I don’t count myself as one of the Potter faithful, however, so my expectations for this prequel series are probably slightly at variance to those who hung on every development in the original saga. I enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts, for a start, significantly more than several entries in the founder series, and I liked Eddie Redmayne’s aspergic Frank Spencer-but-capable Newt Scamander well enough.

Which is not to say I necessarily thought him suited to headlining (four) further movies. But even liking that movie, it was clearly stapling together several different plots and elements that didn’t necessarily want to share the same room. Crimes compounds that, and there’s a persistent feeling that various characters and subplots that might previously have been excused – because, well, they’re fleshed out in the novel and so there’s good reason, even if you can’t fully gather what they are as a muggle movie viewer – are now introduced with the same assumption yet meet with a decidedly less rapturous response.

In terms of the clashing titans of the story, Albus Dumbledore is very much eased into the side-lines as the mentor figure who can’t get involved (I don’t really know what the aggrieved were expecting with regard to the – lest we forget, retconned at a late stage anyway in the original series – Dumbeldore-Grindelwald ancient history romance, but no one’s going to be under any illusions as to the nature of their relationship). Law’s an underplaying standout, the most likeable he’s ever been, probably, and certainly, as things play out, he’s being geared up for a more action-orientated role in later instalments.

Of course, many – well, the numbers are moot, even if their loudness isn’t – have had it in for Crimes ever since Rowling & co stood firm behind the (alleged) Crimes of Johnny Depp. Who didn’t do his standing any favours earlier in the year when he was the subject of an out-of-his-gourd piece in Rolling Stone.

I’ve enjoyed a number of Depp’s critically lambasted movies (Dark ShadowsThe Lone RangerMortdecai), even before his personal fall from grace, and it’s only really a couple of Burton roles (Willy Wonka, Mad Hatter) that rankle as indulgently misjudged. The problem with Grindelwald, however, is the same one afflicting a number of his straight roles, even though there’s the opportunity for villainous flourish; there’s not enough “business” for him.

Sure, he goes to town on a blonde wig, pancake makeup and contact lens, and dusts off his well-used RP intonations, but there’s nothing to dig into, the odd quip aside. There’s some smart manipulation and a decent speech – of which more later – but nowt that couldn’t have been furnished by the discarded Colin Farrell. A dearth of anything to make you think Depp was particularly right for the part. So, as a result, he’s merely serviceable.

Which is more a problem in overall context; so little here stands out. Even Newt, perpetually failing to make eye contact like a Norman Wisdom minus the presumptive pratfalls, has been cast adrift. We’re told how necessary he is, but aside from failing to acknowledge a trio of ladies harbouring lusty thoughts towards him and a bit of nominal detective work, Rowling goes out of her way to give him nothing to do. Some obligatory fantastic beasts are shoehorned in – gotta justify that title – but by the time he should be breaking out and showing his mettle in the third act, he has square-jawed brother Theseus by his side (Callum Turner), so there’s precious little opportunity.

I liked both Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and especially Queenie (Alison Sudol) in the first movie, but Jacob’s never more than an unnecessary appendage here (Fantastic Beasts‘ Jar Jar Binks?), while Queenie’s forced into siding highly unconvincingly with Grindelwald (on the basis that she wants to marry a Muggle, and Grindelwald tells her what she wants to hear). Katherine Waterston’s Tina does nothing – that word again – of note, apart from eliciting a cringy compliment from Newt – “I think that might have been the best moment of my life” – when she zaps his brother. And the short straw is drawn by Zoe Kravitz’s Leta, in respect of observing the pointless but obligatory motivating death.

Rowling’s clearly trying to write with cinema in mind – kicking off with a daring escape that might have been more effective, had it seemed genuinely clever, daring and surprising – but later appears to throw in the towel at a crucial point in third-act developments. Indeed, the movie drawls along for the first two-thirds, from New York to London to Paris with various stop-offs at Hogwarts, never really galvanising but never quite self-imploding either; there’s always a promise that something may happen, and when all-important object of Grindelwald’s attentions Credence (Ezra Miller, a fine actor who has been consistently either misused or underused by blockbusters) is located, the picture seems poised to make good.

Instead, we dive into successive cumbersome flashback sequences, the first courtesy of Yusuf (William Nadylam), regarding who he thinks Credence’s parents are, followed by a corrective remembrance from Leta regarding who she thinks they actually are (or rather, who she knows they are not). I’m sure this would have amounted to several hundred pages of engrossing text across several novels had they been fully planned and integrated that way, but as it stands, they operate as reveals the movie(s) failed to take sufficient time to set up as mysteries. I can see what Rowling wants to achieve, but structurally she hasn’t done the work to get it. They’re unearned.

I might suggest, following all this talk, that Johnny Depp giving a speech is merely compounding the problem, but on one level it’s easily the smartest move of the picture; persuading his audience of the rationale for avoiding another WWI, unless they take decisive action, is a no-brainer and a strategic masterstroke (from our position of hindsight, obviously), however manipulative for his own ends it is. I don’t really go with the idea that this kind of thing is de-facto distasteful and disrespectful to real-world events (see also X-Men and its appropriation of Auschwitz). It can be, but it if you’re taking that position, you should rationally reject any fictionalising narrative.

Unfortunately, after Grindelwald’s bombshell, director David Yates (who is surely spent on this franchise by now, six movies and more than a decade in; perhaps his biggest legacy is now making the series’ magic seem mundane) singularly fails to knit drama from the various ensuing betrayals, confrontations and deaths. Particularly when it comes to a big, banal CGI magic show in the Paris sky that signals the grand climax.

The picture is so intent on hitting its marks and reaching its prescribed physical and structural locations that it forgets to create its own character and atmosphere. At an early point, there’s a character called Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, who reminded me a little of a younger Julian Glover), tasked to fulfil the Ministry role Newt refuses; he appears to be set up for a conflict role and has a neat Dark City thing for passing through walls. But then, Rowling simply drops any long-term potential by revealing him as one of Grindelwald’s flock and so his usefulness evaporates; there’s a perfunctory quality throughout Crimes that leaves you feeling uninvested.

The big talking point, mythology and future of the series-wise, has been the final retconning reveal that Credence is none other than the hitherto unknown fourth Dumbledore sibling Aurelius. To such an extent that various sites are floating the idea that this might be a lie on Grindelwald’s part, as the established dates don’t add up. Which is, let’s face it, kidding themselves, the idea that Rowling might waste a grand climax on a lie she’s going to recant a movie or two later.* Particularly since we’ve been here before, doubt-wise (albeit under more feverish circumstances: Vader as Luke’s father). Really, it represents the series prematurely victim to the kind of continuity gorging that has enabled various siblings of Spock to appear post the fact who mysteriously passed unmentioned for all those years.

For all its flaws, not least that it fails to find sufficient footing as a movie in its own right, I wouldn’t say I disliked Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.  It has left the series with a significant task, however, a ship to right if the pentalogy is going to work going forward. Without a “Luke” character, whose journey we’re invested in (the closest is Credence, and he’s dealt short shrift), there’s little to pull us along with the haphazardly episodic flow.

The biggest concern for Warner Bros will be how viable the series remains once the final grosses come in; they’ve assumed there’s a built-in audience here that will see them through, even with declining returns compared to the former star attraction (see previously The Hobbit). But, if the initially voiced indifference to this one is any indication, a big rethink may be necessary going forward with a series that doesn’t come cheap ($200m a pop). Whatever its merits, it isn’t igniting the public’s imagination as it needs to. Call it the curse of the prequel, or perhaps it’s complacency and reliance on formula, but Fantastic Beasts needs a kick up the ass if it’s going to reach its envisaged conclusion.

*Addendum 01/08/22: Did JK retcon the retcon, then, in Fantastic Beasts 3, owing to her error being pointed out, or did she plan this reveal as a cheat from the first?

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