Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the Wizarding World down intriguing and sumptuous new paths, even if its sense of direction is lacking at times.
Following the events of Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (hint: they’re in the case), Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is under lock and key in America. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t stay there for long, and soon unlikely hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is enlisted to help track him down. Throw in some other duplicitous plot lines and all roads lead to Paris.
Switching steampunk America for anées folles France, director David Yates’ luxurious Parisian canvass acts as the perfect place for magic to unfold, with the carnivalesque palette accentuating the weird and wonderful beasts. There is a glorious set piece where Newt and his Niffler try and recreate the events of the previous night on the Parisian streets. Wisps of gold erupt and float through the air while Scamander scampers around looking for clues.
Even in a greyer London, Newt’s basement full of creatures swells into a wonderfully vivid emporium. The film’s texture looks and feels rich, from the costume design through to James Newton Howard’s lively score.
This liveliness is translated equally successfully through certain character combinations. The main quartet from the first film slip into an enjoyable rhythm, and once again it is Jacob (Dan Fogler) who delivers the comedic beats consistently and deftly. Similarly, Eddie Redmayne’s increasingly confident Newt is a joy. His budding romance with Tina (an underused Katherine Waterston) is undeniably twee, but it is also very endearing.
The two major additions to the franchise – a fleshed out Grindelwald and are imagined Dumbledore – are both superb. Though the off-screen behaviour of Johnny Depp jars and initially takes you out of the film, his depiction of Grindelwald is excellent. Leaning more into demagoguery than the thuggery of Voldemort, he aims to seduce wizards into following his cause by manipulating their base instincts and prejudices, not through fear.
For his part, Jude Law gives a mischievous and fizzing energy to the young Dumbledore. Though some elements of the ensemble cast occasionally misfire, you get the impression that future instalments will be well anchored as the story begins to centre on the relationship between these two men.
If anything, it’s the heavy-handed plotting which threatens to undermine Fantastic Beasts. Structurally, it feels detached from Harry Potter. One of the major strengths of that series was that each instalment acted as a standalone piece. Yes, the meta-narrative, in which Harry is destined to take on Voldemort, grew in importance, but each film was driven by a singular story. With Fantastic Beasts, you get the impression that the opposite is true. The grand arc is the driving force.
This isn’t necessarily problematic. Plenty of franchises hinge on this model, but it does somewhat detract from the individual integrity of each story. As a result, plot lines within this second instalment feel like they would exist more comfortably on the page than onscreen. Familial revelations are occasionally rushed and lack the methodical and thoughtful build-up which can be afforded across 500 pages of text.
Evidently, the aim of The Crimes of Grindelwald is to set this broader scene and to situate Newt’s travails within a wider wizarding world. In this regard, the film is pretty triumphant. You emerge from the cinema genuinely excited and curious about where the story will lead next. Though sometimes wayward in its glance, this is a confident and visually absorbing sequel which balances nostalgia with bright new ideas. It’s certainly more fantastic than beastly.