Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald

 

            First of all, J.K. Rowling has an incredible imagination.  She's invented an entire world of wizards and magic, first embodied in the wildly successful “Harry Potter” series, and now continued in the “Fantastic Beasts” saga, which is sort of the prequel to Harry Potter.  This movie is the second of the three installments, and true fans will happily lap up all the nuances, but honestly, it's a bit confusing to the layman, especially since the story line picks up where it left off with the first segment.

            It's clear that Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is the bad guy.  He appears mostly at the first, in managing to escape from captivity, and also at the end, where he almost destroys all his rivals in a dramatic, fiery showdown.  Since the film says it takes place in 1927, it's interesting that the evil Grindelwald gives us a premonition of the horrors to come, in brief flashes of World War II devastation.

            The central character is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who apparently is a bit of a rebel.  The Ministry of Magic tries to officially recruit him, but he prefers operating as an independent.  The trouble is, he will discover that in the end, it's impossible not to choose sides.  Newt has a special affinity for creatures both great and small, kind of like a critter-whisperer.  This mostly comes in handy, as a pet the size of a praying mantis manages to free him from a prison by unlatching the lock.  He carries around a couple of his furry friends in a suitcase, and lets them out when he especially needs their help.

            Grindelwald is trying to gather his forces to control what happens in the “muggle world,” that is, those born without magic powers.  What he says about bringing peace, though, sounds more like a fascist fantasizing about complete control, particularly because he's willing to use violence to achieve his ambitions.  He's also a mesmerizing speaker, who knows how to tap into the dark side of his enraptured audience.

            In Rowling's wizard world, wands are magic, but the right incantations have to be used.  People appear and disappear seemingly at will.  Photographs talk.  And a quick-witted wizard can counteract another wizard's spell, but beware, there are vastly different levels of power here.  Dumbledore (Jude Law) would seem to be the patriarch of the good guys, but unfortunately, he and Grindelwald took a blood brother oath as students, so Dumbledore is of limited usefulness in this plot, though he is obviously a good teacher at the Hogwarts school, and the students evidently respond to him.  We'll likely see more of this dynamic developed in the third installment.

            There are lots of subplots with secondary characters here:  intimations of romance, an adopted son trying to find his “true” family, an old sorcerer helping to locate lost friends, an older brother trying to re-connect with a younger one. The humor is scarce. It's sometimes difficult to follow.  And perhaps worst of all, the charm seems to have eluded this particular production.  It's grim and tight-lipped rather than eyes-wide-in-wonder-and-amazement.  We still marvel at J.K. Rowling's imagination.  But here, at least, she seems to be slipping a bit in connecting to an audience wider than her own already-fanatic fan base.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association