November 11, 2019

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Potter prequel not exactly spellbinding

Second in wizarding series mostly a setup for followup films

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One wants to refer to the new cycle of "Wizarding World" movies centred on magical zoologist Newt Scamander as a trilogy. But apparently, that is not a done deal. No one really seems to know how many Newt movies are coming down author J.K. Rowling’s Floo Network, although the number five has apparently been floated.

Even so, the second instalment, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has a Two Towers vibe to it as it continues the story of the first movie but doesn’t tie the many narrative threads into a nice package by the end.

What the film does do is establish interesting sets of parallels in an increasingly complex plot. After an impressive prelude showing outlaw dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escaping from the custody of the American Magical Congress, it emerges that our politically non-committal hero Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is staying in the Grindelwald business at the behest of his former Hogwarts teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Dumbledore cannot personally move against the increasingly authoritarian Grindelwald — call him a wizard nationalist — and needs Newt as his proxy.

Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is on the hunt for a Zaowu, a creature from Chinese mythology in  Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is on the hunt for a Zaowu, a creature from Chinese mythology in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Harry Potter fans who have done a deep dive into the Great Lake of wizarding lore already know Dumbledore and Grindelwald started off as close friends. (Rowling has acknowledged they were, in fact, lovers.) And just as Dumbledore needs someone to fight his battle, so too does Grindelwald. That is one of the reasons he seeks out the still-alive Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an "obscurial" — essentially a closeted wizard whose magic bursts out in uncontrolled storms of destruction. (Man, there’s lots of sexual subtext in this new cycle of films.)

Another unexpected parallel: Dumbledore is living with the guilt of letting his sister die (which you can read about in the seventh Potter book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). That links him to Newt’s ex-girlfriend Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), likewise wrestling with her own past sins, something that might have driven her from Newt and into the arms of Newt’s older brother Theseus (Callum Turner), a dark wizard-fighting auror. "You never met a monster you couldn’t love," Leta tells Newt in their sad reunion.

Both Newt and Grindelwald search for Credence in Paris, an exercise complicated by the appearance of American witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and her literally entranced Muggle boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Through Queenie, Newt learns the reason why Queenie’s auror sister Tina (Katherine Waterston) has grown cold towards him. (Spoiler alert: It was a misleading cutline.)

The second film in the Fantastic Beasts series is top-heavy with ideas and magical clutter. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The second film in the Fantastic Beasts series is top-heavy with ideas and magical clutter. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Of course, Fantastic Beasts wouldn’t be Fantastic Beasts without ... well, you know. The adventure in Paris also puts Newt on the hunt for a Zaowu, a creature from Chinese mythology, and also puts Newt in the proximity of Nagini, a cursed witch destined to permanently assume the form of a snake. (Nagini will figure prominently in the Potter series, of course.)

Rowling, who assumed screenwriting duties for this series, throws in a lot of moving parts. It falls on director David Yates to herd these Nifflers into a coherent narrative, something he does with practised ease. (Yates directed the last four of the eight Potter films and knows his way around the mythology.)

If Depp’s reveal at the end of the first film felt like a disappointing bit of stunt casting, he redeems himself somewhat here as the psychopathic villain, proving he can do charming, cold and soulless.

Redmayne too is more engaging this time around, toning down the eccentricity and social awkwardness to tolerable levels, thankfully.

It’s good fun, but also needlessly complex. The film is a little top-heavy with ideas and magical clutter and at least one baffling plot turn. In taming these Beasts into screenplays, one wishes the novelist Rowling had maintained the services of a good editor.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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