FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD – Review
Prior to my film screening, a man walked about the auditorium performing card tricks for audience members. Kids and adults alike were wowed by his magic tricks, but as everyone knows, the deck was stacked in his favor. He didn’t have to worry about what cards he held, which seems like a problem J.K. Rowling had to face when establishing the FANTASTIC BEASTS universe. Establishing characters that were only hinted at in the Wizarding World and some not even mentioned at all was perhaps the biggest of many challenges. Ultimately, the first film was a tonal mess of jumbled themes that didn’t know exactly what it wanted to do – the equivalent of not knowing whether to go for a full house or three-of-a-kind. And unlike the entertainer with the deck of cards, J.K. Rowling had to lay on the table a number of weak cards in the first film before she was able to play a stronger hand with the second film in the series.
At the end of the first film, the powerful wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escapes custody and begins gathering followers to fulfill his mission: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings (No-majes). In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander to stop him, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.
THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD opens with an exciting breakout as Grindelwald is attempted to be transported from one jail to another. It sets the tone for an espionage-heavy story that also weaves a cat-and-mouse chase across multiple countries. A wave of a wand and characters pop up in a new place, and then leave soon after to pop up in another. While on paper, it sounds like an exhilarating departure from the first film’s childlike hijinks, it’s told without much conviction and lacking any forward trajectory. The story is much more focused than its predecessor, but director David Yates seems more interested in the intimate character moments than the fear of a growing evil presence that looms over the characters. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot highlights this through a number of extremely tight close-ups on the characters, something that was practically non-existent in the previous film’s visual storytelling.
The fantastic beasts from the title are more cleverly woven into the fabric of the story than they were previously. In the first film, they acted as cute distractions from the witch-hunt, here, they pick locks for characters to escape and act as guardians when trouble arises. In fact, one of the shining characters in the film is a large fanged dragon-looking cat that resembles something in a Chinese Dragon Dance. Compared to the first entry, Newt Scamander’s role as a magical zookeeper doesn’t get in the way of his new role in helping to save the world (as silly as that may sound).
The magical world is central to the story, and the numerous flashbacks and new reveals will excite fans of this universe. Hearing the iconic John Williams score once again and taking a trip back to Hogwarts was a welcome return. Who is particularly strong in these scenes is Jude Law as a young Dumbledore. He is able to perfectly balance the scholarly manner of the character along with a hint of mischievousness that comes through at times in something as subtle a passing comment and slight smirk. Because of his relationship with Newt Scamander and others, the first film suddenly is given new purpose – something that I question whether was actually planned out from the start.
As I was expecting yet another over-the-top performance from Johnny Depp, I was shocked to see how restrained he is with Grindelwald’s line delivery and mannerisms. Under the pale skin and white hair, he plays the villain as an all-seeing, stoic British gentleman, not unlike David Bowie late in his life. David Yates appropriately limits his screentime until the finale, where we see just how much power he has in the wizarding world. His roaring speech to his followers is a moody show-stopper. While it may take a little too long to get to that point, he casts a spell over the audience and his followers through his manipulation of fear and the threat of war – it becomes an effective allusion to Hitler’s rise to power in pre-WWII Europe.
While THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD suffers at times from many crimes, they are far fewer and less offensive than FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. Just as the original series of films balanced an innocent sense of wonder with an intriguing dissection of the blurred line between good and evil, here’s hoping that this new series continues to figure out its own unique style between wowing kids and adults and engaging wizards and no-majes.
Overall Score: 3 out of 5
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD opens in theaters November 16th, 2018