Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the latest instalment in a projected pentalogy from J.K. Rowling, which finds Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander doing battle with Johnny Depp’s eponymous Grindelwald, whilst a selection of the, also eponymous, fantastic beasts dart fleetingly through the streets of Paris.
In truth, the plot is much far more complex even than that. Whereas the Harry Potter books (and films) were essentially tight little boarding school whodunnits (Agatha Christie by way of Enid Blyton, with a healthy dose of Ursula K. Le Guin), the Fantastic Beasts movies are sprawling travelogues, packed with cities being blown apart and our heroes moving across continents at the drop of a wand. They are difficult to summarise because they are unruly and slightly formless.
At its heart, The Crimes of Grindelwald has a scaling issue. Every sequence – Newt swimming with a kelpie, a Chinese cat/dragon tearing up Paris, the French ministry’s demon cats chasing our gang – is as big as, if not bigger, than the key set-pieces from its parent franchise. Think the second task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Millennium Bridge destruction from Half-Blood Prince, and the dragon escape from Deathly Hallows and you have an idea of the scale of the sequences that pepper The Crimes of Grindelwald. For all that Rowling is still in the creative driver’s seat, she cannot translate that delicacy of plotting to her screenplays.
Taking up writing duties again, Rowling crafts a sequel that is even more buried in her universe’s arcane lore than the first spin-off. But, equally, for every question that it answers – why is Dumbledore (Jude Law) so loathe to fight Grindelwald? Why is Nagini so damn sexy? – it raises a half-dozen more, than seem out of step with the mechanics of the original series. Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts as previously brought to the screen by Messrs Columbus, Cuaron, Newell and Yates was hardly magic realist, but it was magic logical. Here, the adventures of Newt Scamander are both plodding – Grindelwald’s rally resembles the trade debate sequences from The Phantom Menace – and utterly daft. Entire sections could have been surgically removed without loss of any narrative direction, and the emotional climax – involving, shock horror, a death – is so bafflingly unintelligible as to leave eyes dry and mouths open.
And yet, in a world where Marvel Studios are constantly applauded for turning out essentially the same film, over and over, with interchangeable dialogue being delivered by interchangeable characters, there is something quite charming about the construction of Rowling’s jokes, her touch for relationships, that feels organic and unexpected. There are so many moments in Fantastic Beasts where an exchange or set-piece defies the simple and rote blockbuster methodology that it is hard to hate. And every time we dive into Newt’s suitcase or the basement of his London home (which is so vast it would make the Duke of Westminster blush) there’s a sense of unleashed magic that children will love, whilst adults will marvel at the advances in CGI.
The Crimes of Grindelwald is, of course, too long (it clocks in at 134 minutes, but never quite tests an audience’s patience) but it’s not an unwelcome addition to the box office. A mess then, but a mess that deserves to be indulged. Whether the film’s frosty reception will lead to a rethink of a series that is less than halfway and already scraping the barrel remains to be seen, though once tickets start being bought perhaps those fears will fade away.