Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the sequel to the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and either J.K. Rowling’s plots are now so labyrinthine she makes your average John le Carré look like Noddy, or I failed to put in sufficient homework, or it’s a plain mess. Whichever, I hadn’t a clue what was happening most of the time.
I like the whole Potter industry well enough, but I can’t say I’m a superfan. I don’t even have an opinion on whether Dumbledore is gay or not, which is the surest sign of non-superfandom. But while a film should cater to those in the know, it should also be open to all, surely. Or maybe it’s like the Pirates of the Caribbean or Bond franchises, and coherence just doesn’t matter any more?
I did do some homework in that I watched the first film. It is set in the 1920s, before Harry has even been born, so there’s none of the usual crew, although I don’t think this film sucks because Ron Weasley isn’t in it. Our hero is now Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a ‘magizoologist’ who carries a bottomless suitcase filled with fantastical beasts. I did love the beasts, and would give anything to own a Murtlap. (Very cute, even if it does bite.) Directed by David Yates with a screenplay by Rowling, this film takes off where that film left off so it’s essentially Newt’s continuing battle against Grindelwald the dark wizard, played by Johnny Depp with one opaque, red-rimmed eye although that may be the least of his problems these days.
This is mostly set in Paris, for no good reason, with occasional cuts to Hogwarts and Jude Law as a younger Dumbledore, now so stylish he looks as if he’s stepped out of a menswear spread in GQ. (If I had an opinion I’d go with gay, definitely.) There is the main Scamander vs Grindelwald plot, but also many subplots that are themselves subplotted and further subplotted. None of the strands is ever allowed to build up a head of steam and some characters seem pointless. Newt now has an assistant, Bunty, who appears to be in love with him, but she disappears after one scene.
I started by giving this the benefit of the doubt — it was my fault for not knowing enough — but now I’m veering more towards the overly labyrinthine, plain-mess theory. The film just doesn’t tell a clear story. Instead, it jumps constantly from set piece to set piece without ever offering any through line or time to get to know a character. (Bunty, was it something we said?) It’s still visually delicious, admittedly, but where’s its sense of humour? The romance between Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle, and Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is magic, provided the heart of the first film, and quite a few laughs, so what does Rowling do with them here? Right at the beginning, the couple break up.
There is also no proper conclusion. Instead, it just sets it up for the next film, which in turn will set it up for the next film, which in turn will set it up… and so on and so on, probably until the end of time.