Movie sequels are tricky things, and they are especially tricky when the film in question is the middle part of a three-part series. The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, The Matrix: Reloaded, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest arguably being the weakest episodes of big trilogies; the reason for this I feel is that these middle episodes have neither the new imagination and welcoming introductive nature of an opening salvo, nor the satisfying aspect of a concluding episode. Rather, these films can often feel like a mere setup for the big finale coming next (and yes, I realise I’ve ignored the superb Stars Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
Which brings us to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is doubly-challenged: it’s the second film in apparently a series of five, so it’s tasked with not just setting up a finale, but another three further films, plus, with the huge cultural collateral that the beloved “Wizarding World” holds for millions, and the huge marketing effort put behind the film, audience expectations on its initial cinematic release were extraordinarily high – which led to the film being heavily criticised. But now the dust has settled, and the film is now available on DVD, has time been kind to Fantastic Beasts 2?
Like the mid-quels mentioned at the top of this review, the first “Wizarding World” film with second-film status Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets is also one of the weaker entries – but not because of its all-set-up-and-no-content nature. Wisely (in my opinion), Chamber tells a simple story, with occasional nods to narrative elements that will be picked up later on in the run. However, maybe because of the negativity towards the film, Grindelwald chooses a different approach… and one that in my mind completely fails as a cinematic endeavour.
My main issue is that the film is entirely set up, and an almost joyless one at that. With no regard to offering audiences a satisfying singular cinematic experience despite being part of a series (such as we got from, for example, Thor: Ragnarock), we are expected to care about numerous brand new characters, including Leta LeStrange (Zoë Kravitz), Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), Nagini (Claudia Kim), Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), none of whom were in the previous film Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, but we are suddenly supposed to be emotionally invested in because they have tenuous connections to characters from previous films. Another addition of sorts is Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) himself, who – despite being the focus of the film’s title – is barely in the film; his crimes that are apparently worthy of the film’s title are never shown. Not much more than an extension of the surprise cameo at the end of Fantastic Beasts, he is a phantom menace who, by the end, is revealed to just be manipulating people for later events. Much like JK Rowling, who wrote the script, who has replaced an engaging plot with moving characters around in preparation for later films.
It’s a difficult film to summarise, plot-wise: so much happens, and yet so little. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is given a mission by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the young cloud-monster of the previous film. Credence is also being hunted by aurors (read ‘magic police’) from America and Britain, in the shape of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Newt’s more respected and successful brother, the aforementioned Theseus Scamander, and also by the dark wizard Gillert Grindelwald, and also by Yusuf Kama, who wants to kill him. When Tina and Newt eventually meet in Paris, the plan switches to finding Credence’s true identity, which is interrupted when Grindelwald holds a rally to gain followers for his evil schemes. Oh and elements of Leta’s traumatic past are introduced and then explained, and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) from Fantastic Beasts have relationship problems due to political differences.
As is evident, if you haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, you really won’t have a clue what is going on. But it’s worse than that: you won’t care. The film is only truly enjoyable to fans of the Harry Potter books, particularly ones who engage with Pottermore and all the other extent material JK Rowling has produced since the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows almost twelve years ago. It’s practically self-indulgent fan-fiction written by the original author. Case in point: the appearance of Nagini as a human woman with an animal-based curse – rather than a huge snake and future ‘villain’ of the Harry Potter films – only makes dramatic sense in terms of a new, tragic backstory – which is totally reliant on knowing her future. The same applies to the connection between Leta LeStrange and her future relative Bellatrix. A delight I’m sure for those who’ve read the books, but anyone else will be baffled.
And if it’s meant to be for true fans, it doesn’t deliver there either: like a heavily CGI’d Orlando Bloom as Legolas appearing in the later two-thirds of The Hobbit films, Jude Law should not be in this film, and certainly not as the beloved Albus Dumbledore. Dubious acting ability aside, Jude Law lacks the necessary sparkle provided by Richard Harris or the physicality of Michael Gambon’s previous portrayal. Not to mention that Law is far too young, certainly when compared to flashback appearances in the Harry Potter films – which fans will do – or even when compared to his apparent contemporary Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald.
OK, let’s wrap this up on the positives: Of course the special effects are great throughout – but that’s expected nowadays; we need more than pretty visuals. The extended flashback sequence about Leta’s life in Hogwarts is engaging – although ultimately pointless, judging by what happens to her at the end of the film. And I also liked that simple, ‘tart-with-a-heart’ Queenie goes over to the dark side in the final reel, demonstrating how easy it is for normal, everyday uncritically-thinking people to be caught up in destructive political movements. Essentially, it’s Rowling showing how ‘normal folks’ ending up voting for Trump or Brexit. So that’s good.
Eddie Redmayne is, as always, very endearing and brilliant as Newt Scamander, but is given too little to do, as are all the leads from the previous film. It’s a bit like watching a Harry Potter film that Harry, Ron and Hermione barely feature in. There’s just no protagonist; instead, like a magical soap opera, we have an ensemble cast given a tiny bit of plot each. Is the next film going to define who Newt is and what he can do? And even if it does, should it really take three films to find out?
In short: Must do better, Joanne – minus ten house points from Gryffindor!
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out now on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.