Film review | Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

J.K. Rowling and David Yates continue to build the ‘Wizarding World’ as Newt Scamander’s adventures get more intricate and political… but the results ain’t pretty

Johnny Got His Grindelwald: Depp is the Mephistophelean antagonist in this limp expansion of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Wizarding World’
Johnny Got His Grindelwald: Depp is the Mephistophelean antagonist in this limp expansion of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Wizarding World’

Let it never be said that J.K. Rowling’s success story was not an inspiring one. Writing her way out of poverty, she ended up carving a significant niche in the collective imaginations of an entire generation, as Harry Potter and his friends now occupy the same spot that Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins would have previously taken up.

As it happens, Hogwarts and its surrounding milieu offer just the kind of generation-straddling fantasy setting that is ripe for exploitation by the Hollywood machine, with its penchant for rose-dimmed childhood nostalgia and the escapist trappings of a magic-enhanced world of wonder.

And like their superhero counterparts, these worlds are fecund bowers of story; generating narratives like rapidly expanding mushrooms. Which means cash in hand for the studios in question -- an aspect of the phenomenon we are once again seeing take place with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which through the figure of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) serves as a prequel saga to the Harry Potter franchise.

Following on from the uneven but rewardingly raucous first episode of this new saga, Newt suddenly finds himself pledged to a death duel with the fugitive evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who flees capture by the magical establishment and begins to foment an underground populist revolt fired up by the notions of enslaving the ‘non-magical’ world population. But to continue on with the biological pest metaphor… this is a story barnacled by side-stories, sub-plots and a plethora of characters, perhaps the most significant of which is the tale of so-called Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a young magically adept boy stuck working as a circus freak but eager to discover the truth of his origins.

It is in fact the Credence storyline that has the only bit of narrative fibre going on, and any screenwriter-producer duo would have been able to hammer a film into shape based on its contours, with everything else -- including the repetitive and uninteresting flailings of the bumbling Scamander -- being relegated to the background. Corvus is, in effect, the only character with anything resembling a bona fide narrative journey (even if it is an all-too-familiar orphan story), and his trajectory would have made for a snug three-act film with all the right beats in place.

But these handy rules don’t seem to apply to J.K. Rowling, who pens the script for this, yet another film to be handled with the consistently competent but equally uninventive directorial hand of Potterverse veteran David Yates. The story moves by accumulation rather than forward motion, gathering plot details and secondary characters like a lazy snowball.

What adds poison to this unwelcome sting is that the effects work and production design -- brought to exquisite life by an inspired team -- is not given an adequate platform on which to blossom, given that Rowling’s undisciplined writing is more concerned with setting up future episodes than in crafting a satisfying standalone experience.

So I will list them all here. One round of applause for the production designer Stuart Craig. And please, another, raucous round for the entire art direction team: Martin Foley, Lydia Fry, Christian Huband, Sam Leake, Hayley Easton Street, Helen Xenopoulos and all of their department members. May future labours be more adequately respected by finer scripts.

The verdict

Playing to the gallery with a film that attempts to stand on Easter Egg cameos and promises of future greatness rather than attempting narrative cohesion, this sequel is a limp, plodding mess that will only provide a modicum of satisfaction to the most trivia-hungry Rowling fans. While the efforts of its concept and visual effects artists certainly deserve the most lavish praise, a complete lack of narrative ballast results in the entire (gorgeous) edifice collapsing like a papier-mache gothic castle. Save money on the cinema ticket and buy the art book instead.