Although it never equalled the Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - the first of five planned J.K. Rowling-penned prequels to the boy wizard series - was a fun, if undemanding reintroduction to the wizarding world. In many ways it was similar to Harry Potter’s debut, The Philosopher’s Stone, providing a gentle, child-friendly introduction to the characters and the fantastical world they inhabit, while hinting at greater dangers and darker times ahead.
But whereas Philosopher’s Stone was followed by the superior Chamber of Secrets, The Crimes of Grindlewald falls short of both Potter’s sophomore outing and its own immediate predecessor. It follows Chamber, both in telling a more expansive story and a proper appearance by the series’ chief villain (both Voldemort and Grindlewald are present but disguised throughout their first appearances). But where its predecessors had strong, coherent stories to tell, this latest adventure tries to tell too large a story and comes somewhat unstuck along the way.
When we last left them, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) was departing New York to continue work on his book (the titular Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them), leaving behind romantic interest, American witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her possible no-maj (that’s muggle to you and I) paramour Jacob (Dan Fogler). Grindlewald (Johnny Depp) was in the custody of MACUSA, and Credence (Ezra Miller) - a powerful Obscurus who’s important to Grindlewald’s plans - may or may not have survived.
If none of that makes a lick of sense to you, then Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t your place to start with the wizarding world. It makes no concessions to non-Potter initiates (and ten films in, nor should it). Picking up in 1927, a year after the first movie, it will come as little surprise to learn Grindelwald’s incarceration doesn’t last long, with the dark wizard escaping in an impressive early set piece.
From there, our gang all congregate in Paris, accompanied by Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz). Credence has reappeared, very much alive, and working in a circus alongside Nagini (Claudia Kim), a Maledictus, destined to transform permanently into a snake. Following the events of the first movie, Credence - who was adopted as a baby - is keen to resolve the mystery of where he came from, and why he’s so important to Grindlewald’s plans.
Another mystery we’re presented with is why Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) refuses to join in the fight against Grindelwald, instead recruiting a reluctant Newt Scamander to act on his behalf. Rowling’s previously stated that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers in their youth, and the film’s attracted some criticism for shying away from that relationship. It’s hinted at, and one suspects it’ll come into play later, but for now it’s not the focus of an already over-crowded story, nor the reason Dumbledore is keeping out of the fight.
Also controversial is the casting of Depp. His brief appearance in the first Fantastic Beasts was shortly after various allegations about his private life, and the filmmakers attracted some criticism for not recasting the role. That aside, his part is greatly expanded here, and considering he’s playing an all-powerful dark wizard, he’s more restrained, and effective than we’ve come to expect from him. His Grindelwald is an interesting character, and looks to be more complex a villain than Voldemort. Grindelwald also wants wizarding kind to dominate muggles, but unlike Voldemort, his desire is not based purely on beliefs of superiority. And - as with Thanos - once the reasons behind his genocidal beliefs are revealed, you kind of have to agree that he’s got a point.
Where the film falls down, unusually for master storyteller Rowling, is the script. It feels unfocused, flitting from one set of characters to another, so much so that Newt - the nominal lead - at times feels lost in his own story. We never get to spend enough time with anyone to get to know or care about them. You get the feeling that a novel may have been the more natural home for it, allowing Rowling’s expansive story to breathe. It’s the weakest of the ten films to date; by no means bad, but far less than fans have come to expect. Still, those baby Nifflers are seriously cute though.
The Blu-ray comes with a fun, if uninspiring set of extras, including a few deleted scenes, a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, and J.K. Rowling interview.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: DAVID YATES / SCREENPLAY: J.K. ROWLING / STARRING: EDDIE REDMAYNE, KATHERINE WATERSTON, JOHNNY DEPP, JUDE LAW / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW