A sumptuous and absorbing spectacle, this second episode in the five-film Fantastic Beasts franchise is an absolute wonder and a joy to behold.
True, the plot is complicated and introduces characters and plot arcs that will obviously be extrapolated over the next three adventures. However, nobody does it better than JK Rowling when it comes to storytelling power.
Shrewdly including a couple of trips to Hogwarts to add a further Harry Potter patina to the resplendent mix, The Crimes of Grindelwald begins on a supernaturally dark high that never lets up. Picking up in 1927, six months after the action of the original film, the shape-shifting wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes from his New York prison and sets about moving his world-domination base of operations to Paris.
Grindelwald wants pure-blood wizards – no mixed-bloods allowed – to rule over humanity, and the global Ministries of Magic are out to stop him from up-ending the centuries-old status quo of peaceful tolerance.
The British Ministry asks magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to help stop Grindelwald in return for allowing him to travel freely once more, a perk withdrawn after the creatures-on-the-loose fiasco highlighted last time out.
Newt refuses, until an encounter with his former Hogwarts teacher Albus Dumbeldore (Jude Law). Their meeting takes place in a fog-shrouded London, the pea-souper created by the spell-caster to keep their meeting clandestine. It’s such brilliantly textured strokes that make this extravagant marvel such a fertile fable.
For mysterious reasons, the all-powerful Dumbeldore cannot duel with Grindelwald himself and pleads with Newt to go to Paris and capture him. Meanwhile, Grindelwald is scouring the City of Lights for Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the key to his masterplan, who has taken flight from Le Cirque Arcanas with his Maledictus girlfriend Nagini (Claudia Kim) to discover his true identity and family.
Soon, everyone around Newt is searching for the enigmatic Credence: his friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who also wants to find his missing squeeze Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol); the object of his affection, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston); his Ministry brother, Theseus (Callum Turner); his fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz); and other sundry shady characters. Why is Credence so important? Well, that’s the ultimate revelation in the starkly thrilling cliffhanger that points towards further breathtaking pleasures to come.
David Yates directed the first Fantastic Beasts and four of the Harry Potter movies, and he once more navigates the densely plotted escapades with a fast-paced efficiency that never once becomes a mystifying ball of confusion. And considering the amount of detail and subtlety here, that’s quite some feat.
Blockbuster directors rarely get the credit they deserve, as top-notch CGI can often mask their best work. A master at martialling vigorous and rousing action, Yates deserves the highest praise for such wonders as a soaring flight over Manhattan in a Phantom Carriage, with Grindelwald a malevolent Santa Claus, focusing on the dubious delights of a circus freakshow, chasing through a continually morphing Ministry library, and capping it all with an atmospheric call-to-arms-rally underneath the Père Lachaise cemetery. The swerves into Titanic and Prince and the Pauper territory are merely more delicious icing on the cake.
Once more, the success of the movie rests firmly on the shoulders of the ever-reliable Eddie Redmayne. He adds further nuance to his bumbling magizoologist schtick, as we see his London apartment expand like his suitcase to include a petting zoo, veterinarian section and country lake. Although the fantastic beasts are a limited menagerie this time – the most memorable being the Chinese lion-dragon Zouwu – each plays an important part in the story, especially Pickett, the Groot-like mantis plant that lives in Newt’s jacket pocket, and the cute Niffler whose thievery will doubtless prove invaluable to the next episode.
While Jude Law’s role as Dumbledore is minor, he makes a massive impact and cuts his own uniquely warm and cosy characterisation away from either Michael Gambon or Richard Harris’s reading of the beloved fantasy icon. Johnny Depp is malevolence personified, and his Aryan albino look a sobering facet indeed. It’s also plenty of fun to see young versions of your favourite teachers in the Hogwarts flashbacks.
Far darker than many will be expecting, with hints of a doomed gay romance, and dazzling special effects that push the imaginative boundaries to their limit, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an enchanting treasure trove of fascinating derring-go, eerie gusto, powerful dynamism and thrilling supernatural ambition.
Clearly emboldened by the success of the original film, Rowling has grabbed the Zouwu by the horns and gone for mythic importance big time. The results are amazing in every respect, and a fine continuation for this magnificent legend for the ages.
Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald is in cinemas on Friday 16 November