*** out of ****
(for sequences of fantasy action)
Released: November 16, 2018
Runtime: 134 minutes
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jude Law, Jacob Kowalski, Allison Sudol, Callum Turner, William Nadylam, Claudia Kim, Carmen Ejogo
That’s the question Harry Potter fans will be gasping when the credits roll at the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (correction: they already are), the second movie in the proposed five-film Potter-prequel saga.
Some will be screaming that question in stunned, giddy amazement. Others, not so much. Theirs will be a vexed frustration.
The two-plus hours leading up to it will give Potter-philes plenty to absorb, revel in, enjoy, and unpack, but that cliffhanger – along with some other surprising tidbits and twists – will be at the center of fierce debate unlike any shocks that the franchise has ever dropped.
Suffice it to say, spoilers should be avoided.
With eight Harry Potter films and now two Fantastic Beasts adventures, this 10-chapters-strong and counting narrative doesn’t need its details unpacked to consider if it works or not. You’re either game for what writer J.K. Rowling may have in store for us or you’re not.
What’s more interesting is how it all unfolds, particularly in the hands of director David Yates and his superlative cast. After the final four Potter adventures and the first Fantastic, The Crimes of Grindelwald is the sixth film in the franchise that Yates has helmed (in a row, no less). Fears that this could get stale are to be expected. For me, those fears were completely dashed.
For the first time, Yates as a director (and the series as a whole) has a story that is not based on a pre-existing book source. We’re in uncharted territory.
Within that, Yates luxuriates in a freedom he’s never had before. The same aesthetic look, feel, and tone remain, but there’s a brisk energy, narrative suspense, and character intrigue that comes from not being chained to a checklist of obligatory stewardship.
And by the end, Rowling dares a big canonical risk.
But I keep getting ahead of myself. The gist is this.
Gellert Grindelwald, the most powerful wicked wizard of the pre-Voldemort 1920s, has escaped custody and is on the loose, looking to lead the Wizarding World on a revolution against the status quo. Guided by xenophobic superiority, Grindelwald wants to break the peace between the magic and muggle (normal) worlds, then reign over it all with the pure-blood mystics as the ruling elites.
Central to his burgeoning scheme is a young man named Credence. His mysterious lineage (re: bloodline) may be the key that gives Grindelwald the edge. Newt Scamander, a rogue who works outside the political conflict between the good established order and Grindelwald’s evil anarchy, is tasked by a young(er) Professor Dumbledore to track down Credence in Paris and stop Grindelwald before it’s too late.
The ensuing, harrowing adventure feels fresh, even surprising, with a deft balance of numerous characters. The stakes of their relationships are deeply felt, not just the circumstantial peril, and that engenders a legitimate investment in how things will turn out. J.K. Rowling’s script is also deft in this regard, not feeling as dense as it actually is, while also being more self-contained (to its benefit) than one might expect.
But the ensemble especially should not be taken for granted, because it could be, even with its all-star anchors. The Crimes of Grindelwald casts its spell not simply because of its bells-and-whistles spectacle; it’s the human drama in the midst of it all – from tortured conflicts to tender charm to unpredictable betrayals – that packs each punch. (The only character that gets short-changed is Ezra Miller’s Credence, who ends up being little more than a pawn-like MacGuffin.)
Also, with such a deep pool of mythos to dive into, Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t carry its Fantastic Beasts moniker as a mere afterthought. As with the debut entry Where To Find Them, this adventure keeps magical creatures at the fore, both big and small, at times playing crucial roles, as does Newt’s Magizoologist skills (specializing in beast husbandry).
Eddie Redmayne makes Newt even more endearing this time around, adding a richer humanity to his Asperger-ish awkwardness, and the arc of his star-crossed affection for Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein is genuinely heartwarming.
No surprise, Jude Law is perfect as young Dumbledore, but Johnny Depp may be the one who proves the skeptics wrong. Understandably, when Depp’s personal struggles became tabloid fodder two years ago (including video of verbal spousal assault and reckless endangerment), many turned sour on the eccentric star, calling for Grindelwald to be re-cast. But, if anything, that infamy helps sell this villain’s sinister essence, and Depp gives him more nuance than the character’s garish goth-rock style would suggest.
Despite the dark nature of the title character and his deeds (the PG-13 rating should be heeded by parents), The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t get bogged down in a self-serious dirge. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, even as the story crescendos toward grim consequences.
And then there’s that ending. More cynical types will reflexively knee-jerk to cries of “Retcon!”, but I would contend that we should be thrilled by the possibilities. Rowling and Yates seem intent on not falling into prequel traps or their constraints.
When new information challenges things we’ve been told or that we (think we) know, don’t simply assume that such revelations are cheap, desperate stunts. That’s the worst kind of fandom. Yes, Rowling definitely has some explaining to do but, my goodness, after ten movies, I’m absolutely excited that she still does.