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Not-so-fantastic beasts - ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’

November 20, 2018
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I’ll admit to having been a little skeptical when I first heard about the continuation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-centric fictional universe. That story felt like it had been thoroughly told – did we really need to find new angles to explore?

And so I was surprised to find “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” such a charming, engaging film. Yes, it was a little overproduced and a little convoluted and less focused than it ought to have been, but it was still fun, which is all that really matters with movies like this.

But after seeing the second installment, I fear my initial instinct may ultimately be proven right after all.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is an overstuffed struggle of a movie, driven by needlessly complicated plot and unnecessary detail, stuff that is theoretically meant to be fan service but that in practice just feels superfluous. The movie is long and vaguely confusing and – most damningly – joyless. It isn’t FUN, and really, if your movie about exploring the wonders of a massive wizarding world isn’t fun, then what are we even doing here?

We pick up a few months after the events of the first film. Evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, “Sherlock Gnomes”) is being held prisoner in New York City. He is to be transported back to England to answer for his crimes, but he quickly escapes his escorts. From there, he starts gathering followers in an effort to do … something? It’s not really clear, but he DEFINITELY needs the help of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, “Justice League”), who is searching Europe for his real parents.

Meanwhile, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, “Early Man”) is dealing with the repercussions of his actions from the first movie. Despite the efforts of his brother Theseus (Callum Turner, “Mobile Homes”), Newt’s request to return to his work is denied – he’s no longer allowed to travel internationally. And so Theseus and his fiancée (and Newt’s childhood friend) Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz, “Kin”) are left to handle the Grindelwald situation.

Only it turns out that none other than Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) needs Newt to get involved for reasons that – in typical Dumbledorian fashion – he declines to fully explain.

Meanwhile, Newt’s friends from New York unexpectedly turn up. Mind-reader Queenie (Alison Sudol, “Between Us”) and muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler, “In Like Flynn”) are back together, but Queenie’s sister Tina (Katherine Waterston, “Mid90s”) – Newt’s former love interest – isn’t with them; she’s on the hunt for both Grindelwald and Credence. Eventually, all the paths that need to cross start crossing.

And then everybody (but mostly Newt) has to come up with a plan to stop Grindelwald’s evil scheme before he and his fellow bad wizards take over the world or whatever it is they’re trying to do.

Jammed in alongside the meandering narrative are a whole slew of references and cameos that, while intended to delight hardcore Potterheads, bog down the story and largely prevent any sort of meaningful connection to characters, events or … anything, really.

That’s the biggest issue (of many) that “FB:TCOG” has: it tries to do too much. Even at a bloated 134 minutes, there doesn’t seem to be room for everything that Rowling (who wrote the screenplay) and director David Yates are looking to include. The end result is frantic and chaotic; there are stretches where it borders on the incoherent. It feels as though there are at least three different movies here, each desperate for our attention and willing to undermine the others to get it.

“FB:TCOG” looks nice enough, but even the most impressive sequences fall flat due to a general lack of soul. A film like this should thrill and amaze; instead, you’ll be checking your watch.

It’s a shame – Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is a character with potential. He’s weird even by wizard standards, but with plenty of charm mixed in with his tics and quirks. The dynamic between him and Waterston’s Tina is lovely; she’s got an engaging energy to her. Sudol’s not given a lot to work with as Queenie, but she makes it work. And Fogler is maybe the most interesting part of this whole series – a Muggle (sorry, “No-Maj”) wrapped up in the magical realm. There’s a lot to unpack there, though we barely scratch the surface.

That’s because we have to spend an inordinate amount of time watching Johnny Depp Depp it up as Grindelwald. He’s simply not that interesting to watch; Depp’s past the point where he can lean on his charisma to carry him. He’s dull despite his bombast. Jude Law as young Dumbledore is … fine. He’s fine. But the truth is we never really needed to see Dumbledore as a young man; getting it now feels a little weird. The rest of the cast – Miller, Kravitz, Turner and so on – does decent work that disappears from your memory almost as soon as it disappears from the screen.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” doesn’t leave a whole lot of hope for the three movies yet to follow. It is a dissonant jumble; the infrequent and too-brief flashes of quality are rendered almost valueless by the brightly-colored chaos surrounding them. All in all, we’d be much better off if we spent a little bit more time with the fantastic beasts of the title and a LOT less with the preening, petulant Grindelwald.

[2 out of 5]

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