Scattershot concoction of wizardry and excess plot.
“Let there be milk” J.K Rowling likely said as she amped up to prepare the script for Crimes of Grindelwald, the next entry in the cash cow adventures of Newt Scamander. There are worse cows to drain; coming from an established and widely critically acclaimed franchise, beloved across the world with roots in literature and cinema, Fantastic Beasts had a fantastic handicap coming into the game. The first entry was a charming romp, troubled by the flimsy central conceit of catching monsters. No real big picture, only little teases. This next film expands on the world of the time vastly, but overcompensates rather dramatically and not always to the benefit of the viewer.
The story of this Potter-prequel has, would you believe it, timely relevance to the muggle reality. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has plans for pure-blood wizards to rule over all the non-magical beings in the world. His “seductive” ideology is very quickly garnering numbers, forcing Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to reach out to Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to move against him.
That is the basic narrative that lies within David Yates’ (resident Potterhead) film. From the offset, it’s explosive. Grindelwald escapes the custody of the ministry in a late night carriage sky ride. The direction, special effects and choreography of the moment are exhilarating, the first in a long string of set-pieces that are terrifically executed. But while Yates performs well when it counts most, he becomes less dependable in the filler sections, often clumsily edited, poorly paced and only saved by the magical cinematography of Philippe Rousselot – from the soaring, spine-tingling views of Hogwarts to the more ornate streets of Paris.
Early on though, alarm bells ring. We see Grindelwald’s escape, then catch up with Newt, then we meet Dumbledore, then we touch base with the malicious but troubled Credence (Ezra Miller); all of which form separate plot threads. Rowling’s script is massively overstuffed to the point of confusion and incomprehension, creating a convoluted tapestry of umpteen characters and motivations that cover up a gripping central pursuit. Her screenplay doesn’t always offer up top-tier repertoires either; Redmayne’s take on Newt leaves much to be desired anyway, but the awkward dorkiness isn’t afforded the endearing quality that can make those habitual traits shine.
There are simply far too many members in the ensemble for anyone to really steal the show; Miller’s Credence is direly scripted (although gifted a seismic moment), Zoe Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange can’t find her way around the emotional heft targeted at her, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol’s cheeky couple are back in cutesy form, but utilised scarcely throughout the rather snappy runtime (it’s 134 minutes but it flies by with the sheer amount thrown at you every 10 minutes). Law’s Dumbledore is first and foremost a handsome knight, but in a bursting crowd, he rises slightly above the heads with a charisma-packed take on the legendary icon of the wizarding world. Then, of course, there’s Depp as the titular villain (with a promiscuous link to his adversary). He’s a naturally smug, malevolent figure, managing to convince his supporters of his righteousness while getting away with despicable acts to little or no defeat – quite the parallel, huh?
His agenda, to make the wizarding world great again, has a familiar ring to it. Naturally, equating heinousness and immorality to the acts of the toupee’d president isn’t exactly hard, but in his mission to “cleanse” the lands of muggles, the further comparisons to Holocaust-esque genocide add an unwarranted tinge of real-life commentary.
There is a somewhat breezy feel to some of the picture. Giddy spell-casting throughout is still certain to drive wand sales with their unparalleled escapism, the costume design is as luscious as ever, and there are some fabulous creature chases (featuring the return of the fan-favourite Niffler). But Yates and Rowling have launched a fatal curse on themselves; they want you to be fully invested in the film and the repercussions of the events, they want you to truly believe in the stakes at hand. In trying to earn our affection, they’ve perhaps tried the old adage of making the ‘darker sequel’, and be aware that there’s lots of despair here, deaths upon deaths upon a toddler’s death. Sometimes you’re reminded this is still the world of Harry Potter with gear-shift to a much lighter tone – then, the inability to strike a consistent mood (something its behemoth predecessors were very good at) can take the viewer out of it, alongside the unsuccessful juggling act.
Razzle dazzle doesn’t save this problematic foray into the pre-Potter world of witchcraft and wizardry.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm