The second installment of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts series wasn’t as bad as I expected, but there’s not much to cheer about either.
Do you know why I admire you, Newt? You do not seek power. You simply ask “Is a thing right?”
The Great British Baking Show, which my household has been binging the latest season of obsessively, is full of charming, vocabulary-expanding British terms that I’ve made a habit of using more for sound (“Scrummy,” “Soggy Bottom”) rather than meaning. But there are two adjectives bakers never want to hear describing their work: “Stodgy” — heavy, starchy, dull — and “Claggy” — sticky, indigestible, unpleasantly thick. For some unknowable reason, those words came to mind unbidden while watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Lord, that title), the latest sporadically successful but deeply flawed extension of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding franchise.
The best thing I can say, because I’d like to start with the positives, is that Jude Law makes a magnificent Yung Dumbledore, and seeing more of him in the three (three!) future Beasts is what I’m looking forward to the most. Law plays his waistcoated Albus — waistcoats are back, baby — with a cocksure twinkle; a clear force for good, but not without an ego to match his power. We only get a few scenes with the professor, but they make for some of the film’s high points, and they’re not about dominant displays of magic (that’s coming, one presumes) but Law’s easy charms and his affectionate mentor-mentee relationship with Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander.
Our man Newt is in a familiar position for Harry Potter fans: Bidden by conscience to serve Dumbledore’s will but without having all the information. Grindelwald’s convoluted machinations bring the amiable quartet introduced in 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Katherine Waterston’s Tina, Alison Sudol’s Queenie, and no-maj Jacob, played with great comic timing by Dan Fogler) to 1927 Paris. There the titular dark wizard (Johnny Depp, ugh), who predictably escapes Ministry of Magic custody in an incomprehensible opening sequence, is recruiting followers for world domination. Grindy, Newt, and everyone else are looking for Credence (Ezra Miller), the powerful obscurial who is himself trying to find his own identity with the help of the maledictus Nagini (Claudia Kim). If you have to ask what “obscurial” and “maledictus” mean, you should probably stop reading now and go see something else this holiday.
The thing about the Potter adaptations is that in order for them to work as movies, some of Rowling’s best-loved subplots simply had to go. It’s okay to miss S.P.E.W. or “Weasley is our King,” but when streamlining an intricately plotted 700-page novel for the screen, you have to stick with what’s most important, even if the full richness of the material doesn’t translate. But for Beasts this is all we have, so it’s unsurprising in hindsight that with Rowling handling screenwriting duties herself, everything that she wants to cram-jam in (to use another Mary Berry-ism) will get cram-jammed in, no matter how unclear, uninteresting, or thematically anemic it plays in the final film. Though the series has mustered some surprises, comparisons to the Star Wars or Hobbit prequels are not unearned, with the author seeming to be indulgently, dangerously, rewriting canon on the fly. Time will tell.
Grindelwald adds a bevy of new characters, including future horcrux Nagini, Newt’s stick-in-the-mud brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Theseus’s fiancee (and Newt’s former crush) Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), and even legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), and the film goes out of its way to give each of them hasty scenes to carry on their own instead of keeping the focus squarely on Newt and his friends. If this were done successfully, I’d be praising how generous the script was with its minor players (“Everyone has a moment to shine!” I’d probably say), but that’s simply not what happens here. The plot is simply too dense — stodgy — to afford the additional detours Grindelwald takes. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, a climactic reveal-off that’s a less-inspired version of the Shrieking Shack from Prisoner of Azkaban, and worst of all, more than one dumb misunderstanding that estranges characters who should just talk to each other like adults.
And yet, the actors are so winning, and the world is so rich, it’s hard to hate the film. Redmayne’s performance is more lived-in this time around, effectively modulating Newt’s neuroses and affectations. I’ve already talked about Law and Fogler; Waterston is still excellent, but doesn’t get nearly enough to do. I must even grudgingly admit that I at least understand why Depp was cast as Grindelwald; he brings a (washed-up) rock star glamor to the proto-Voldemort, trotting out the same tired accent he’s used in half of his movies and waving his wand arm around like an orchestra conductor (just wait until the magical skull bong!) but he has an undeniable magnetism; I just wish it was, you know, someone else.
That’s representative of many of Grindelwald’s problems, while flying in the face one of the elder Dumbledore’s most resonant lines from Goblet of Fire: “We must choose between what is easy, and what is right.” It would not have been easy to re-cast Depp, but it would have been right. It’s easy to provide fan service like seeing a young Professor McGonagall at Hogwarts, but it comes at the cost of wrecking the series’s pre-established timeline (she’s not even born until 10 years later)… to say nothing of the film’s final reveal, the implications of which even superfans are struggling to unpack. Longtime series director David Yates puts an eye-popping amount of new magic on display, as well as new additions to Newt’s menagerie (come for the baby Nifflers, stay for the Chinese lion-dragon hypebeast), but as the story moves in ever-darker directions, these interludes become more obligatory than wondrous.
Even Newt’s declaration early on that he “doesn’t do sides” rings awfully hollow in 2018. When one side is murdering toddlers and proclaiming entire groups of beings “less than,” and the other is trying to stop that, not choosing is itself a choice. The magizoologist eventually rouses himself to action, but this confection ultimately leaves a sour taste: Great presentation, gobs of filling, but a soggy bottom — with more portions looming.