Saturday, November 17, 2018


With its second entry, the Fantastic Beasts series has become one of the most strangely paced film franchises. After an initial entry that felt like so much throat clearing introduction, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel sequel shows up with two more hours of introductory exposition. Initially announced as a potential series of five films, it appears Rowling has shaped the whole shebang like a novel. Two films in and we’ve only seen rising action. So leisurely paced it is that a film called Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t even worry overmuch about including its villain committing said crimes. The wizard supremacist of the title breaks out of New York’s magic prison in the zippy and zappy opening sequence, but then simply hangs out in scenic period Parisian locales talking with henchmen and underlings until the film’s final moments give him another monologue. (That this is nonetheless Johnny Depp’s best performance in years shows he can still inhabit a scene when he decides to do so.) The film develops like the setup in the early going of a pokey fantasy novel, so concerned with moving its characters into place like chess pieces on a board of world-building that’s slowly painted before our eyes. In the moment I wondered where it was going, and in the hours since I’ve asked myself why we’re supposed to accept such a slim sliver of story as satisfying. And yet I enjoyed my stay in the world, and took pleasure in Rowling’s pile-up of quirky characters, winking callbacks, and developments so convoluted and drawing upon such deep cut Potter lore I couldn’t figure out if they were surprise connections, retcons, or both. (I saw at least one critic scoff that she’s gone “full Lucas,” to which I can only say “if only.” I would’ve adored some magic Senate gatherings and discussion of wizard trade routes.) I could barely piece together who was doing what for why, but each scene — crafted by Wizarding World veterans director David Yates, production designer Stuart Craig, and costumer Colleen Atwood — is enchanting enough. 

Coasting on an author’s interest in expanding her world and an audience’s goodwill towards it, this is perhaps the first movie series that'll play better as a binge once the whole thing is out. For now we have another slice of time spent in the midst of small details hoping they’ll one day add up to a worthwhile big picture. I liked the small details in this one more than the ones in its predecessor; its tone is more even, and its character work is shorn free of the sense the filmmakers were kicking the tires of a new concept. Now hero wizard zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has grown into a continually endearing oddball center for such a spectacle, stammering and awkward, hunched and soft-spoken, but with his heart in the right place. The film finds him on the trail of a lost orphan (Ezra Miller) who turned into an inky black storm cloud at the end of the first movie. Scamander has been sent by young rascally Hogwarts teacher Dumbledore (Jude Law, with a hint of Richard Harris twinkle in his roguish eyes) who knows Grindewald is hoping to turn the poor missing boy into a pawn for evil purposes. Along the search, Scamander picks up with returning companions, some well-served by their key roles (Katherine Waterston, low-key charming with flat affect and neat black bob), others gladly along for the ride (Dan Fogler, fine comic relief with a hint of pathos), and still others (Alison Sudol) lost in an arc of which I could hardly make heads or tails. A host of other faces (including Zoe Kravitz as a Ministry of Magic agent with a dark past) appear to churn the incidents and backstory with fresh conflict and connections. Meanwhile, there’s a background simmer of growing sympathies for wizard fascism among some in the magic community that creates a mood of unease all-too relatable. (Nothing wrong with hearing Grindelwald out, one gullible witch says. Besides, his prediction that wizard rule could prevent a muggle world war sounds awfully convincing to 1927 Europe.) What does it all add up to? I don’t know yet. All I know is I basically went with it in the moment, enjoying a look in Paris’s answer to Diagon Alley and their Ministry’s archives guarded by hairless cats with huge glowing blue eyes. I liked seeing new corners of the world, found myself surprised to be charmed by the return of characters I’ve scarcely thought about since the last movie, and by the time the credits rolled I could’ve sworn we had only reached the film’s midpoint. I wasn’t ready to leave, mostly because I was basically enjoying the experience, but also because I was still waiting for the story to kick in.

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