Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Newt Scamander And The Exposition Of Doom

“You’re too good, Newt. You never met a monster you couldn’t love.” ~ Leta Lestrange

“Their arrogance is a key to our victory.” ~ Grindelwald

“I can’t move against Grindelwald. It has to be you. In your shoes I’d probably refuse to.” ~ Albus Dumbledore

“You want me to hunt him down? To kill him?” ~ Newt Scamander

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald is the second chapter in a five film series that predates the Harry Potter franchise by decades and follows an unassuming young wizard through misadventures and the rise of darkness. Following the world building first film and taking off from its ending, this film falters a bit and spends time in heavy exposition. It also brings back a familiar name from the original films, in a younger body played by a new actor, while reuniting cast members from the original. Director David Yates returns, while the creator of this magical world, J.K. Rowling, again provides the screenplay.

In 1927, a year after the capture of the dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who had spent the events of the previous film impersonating another character, the man himself is being held prisoner by the Magical Congress of the United States of America. When we’re catching up to him as the film starts, he’s looking like Billy Idol on a bad day. About to be transferred to Britain, he escapes with the aid of one of his followers, with his own plans for the future yet to unfold. As he’s the villain of the series, none of those are good.

Three months later, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) finds his path crossing with familiar faces- witch sisters Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the Muggle and comic relief Yank of the first film Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), his own brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Theseus’ fiancée, with whom Newt has a complicated past. Add in Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, making his debut in the role) and the return of the wild card character Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), and the story takes the characters into Europe and an inevitable confrontation with Billy Idol… I mean, Grindelwald.

Already before the first film came out, there was talk of a trilogy, and then a five film series. David Yates, who’d had a hand in the Harry Potter franchise, directing the last half of the eight films, signed on for the first two films of this series (plus whatever’s to come). J.K. Rowling, who created the boy wizard in her novels and name dropped the Fantastic Beasts book as a textbook at Hogwart’s, was behind the development of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise, writing both scripts. The first film, which took the action out of Britain and into North America, takes things in another geographic setting this time out, with much of the action set in Paris.

The script does tend to delve too much into expository dialogue and the world building of sequels beyond this, which does end up being the weakness in the film. But it does fit into the previously established Potterverse, which nods of what’s to come- Grindelwald being something of a precursor to the darker threat that is Voldemort, the names of families with deep ties to magic, and even a character who shifts from human to snake and will one day be cursed to remain in snake form- a snake already established as Voldemort’s companion.

Where the previous film took a certain glee in presenting unusual beasts of the magical sort, this film deals less with such critters (mostly confining appearances to a magical circus of sorts run by a thoroughly unpleasant wizard) and more with the growing threat of a dark wizard with ambitions and the tensions between wizard and Muggle dynamics. With these, there is the difference of two approaches: a set in our way official government policy of wizards and witches staying away from Muggles, while the dynamic Grindelwald seeks is supremacy over the world for magic.

Filming was done in Britain and France, part of that in studio, other parts on location, with extensive work involving CGI and physical effects, already well established through the previous films and the Potter franchise. So the sight of magical spells being unleashed in small or big ways is familiar to our eyes, and handled well. Yates is, as noted, well familiar with this magical world through his previous work, and the pace of the film only falters when the story calls for expository dialogue and some of that sequel setting up. I do like how Yates makes full use of Paris as the movie’s action goes there. Also welcome is the return of composer James Newton Howard, who composed the score for the previous film and returns for this one, building on what has come before.

The cast, returning players and new, are of course well selected, the strength of the film. Johnny Depp has spent too much time as eccentrics in his choices of film roles in recent years, and his personal life has been something of a mess. He dials down the eccentricity in playing Grindelwald, a character he debuted in the first film as a cameo appearance. His take on the character is a mix of ambition, charm, and malevolence, a dark wizard for whom the ends justifies the means. He believes in wizard supremacy, and his actions are driven by that.

Albus Dumbledore has already been played by three actors in the Harry Potter series. Richard Harris debuted the wise headmaster of Hogwarts in the first two films, with Michael Gambon taking the role after the death of his predecessor. Toby Regbo played a younger Dumbledore in flashbacks in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part One, and returns in flashbacks as the character this time out as well. Now Jude Law takes the part of a young Dumbledore, decades before the older but spry headmaster we first met, but a bright professor at Hogwarts in his own right. His Dumbledore is a bright and highly respected academic and wizard, protective of students, with a principled character and a quiet strength. He plays his cards close to the vest though- a broken bond with Grindelwald from teenaged years is hinted at, as well as the reasons he cannot intervene personally in the hunt for the criminal. Law plays the character’s integrity, loyalty, and resolve in a way that fits in naturally with the Harris and Gambon takes on the character.

Ezra Miller returns as Credence, the abused and disturbed young magician we met in the first film, who was apparently destroyed, but not quite. Here he continues to be a wild card in the mix, unstable and caught between two sides of a growing rift in the world of magic. On the one hand he makes a connection with a fellow misfit, one that might point him to a different path, and on the other is a continuation towards the wrong way. The character is also the subject of a twist before it’s all said and done, and the actor plays to that. Claudia Kim plays Nagini- a familiar name to Potter fans, and she’s the other misfit in question. She’s the main feature of a magical circus, a woman who’s a Maledictus- capable of changing into an animal, in this case a big snake. But she’s also under a blood curse, knowing that one day the change will be permanent, and she won’t come back to herself. Fated to one day be the serpentine companion and Horcrux of Voldemort, Nagini is more sympathetic than you might expect, which the actress bases her performance on, and ultimately tragic when you know where her final fate will lie.

William Nadylam turns up as a French-Senegalese wizard, Yusuf Kama, who has his own reasons to be looking for Credence, and who gets caught up in unfolding events. The actor gives the role a steadfast quality, playing his cards close to the vest. Callum Turner debuts as Theseus Scamander, Newt’s older brother, an Auror and wizard who happens to be a World War veteran, a hero in and of his own right. The two brothers get along, even if they don’t quite understand each other, and even if Newt might feel a bit overshadowed in his presence. There’s also the issue of Leta. Zoe Kravitz plays the part, and there’s a previous bond between she and Newt, but now she’s engaged to Theseus (this would, of course, make get togethers a bit awkward. Given that she’s from the pure blood Lestrange family, well established in the Potter books as on the dark side of things in the ways of magic, Leta is complicated, and you’re never quite sure of where her loyalties lie, but it makes her a compelling character to watch.

Jacob Kowalski served as comic relief in the first film, something that actor Dan Fogler played to in his performance. The character, a human with no awareness that wizards and witches were in the world, is a World War One veteran and bakery owner who crossed paths with Newt in the first path, found himself faced with the astonishing, and managed to survive the film. While the previous film ended with a memory spell cast to wipe the memory of New Yorkers about the events of that film, it didn’t quite happen with Jacob, who gets caught up in things again, particularly with the woman he’s fallen for in the mix.

Queenie Goldstein is once again played by Alison Gudol. A witch with a vivacious, friendly, and outgoing personality, there was a spark between she and Jacob which has persisted (despite knowing she’s violating a rule about not having relationships with non-magical people). The actress continues to play that aspect of the character, as well as the divided loyalties she’s feeling between the world of magic she knows and the man she’s come to love.

Katherine Waterston returns as Queenie’s sister Tina. An auror after the events of the previous film, she’s on a quest of her own in Paris, and the actress plays her as determined and headstrong, courageous in the face of danger. It helps that there’s a good spark between her character and Newt. She’s sensible, down to earth, and likable, which are all good qualities in a leading character.

The first time I saw Eddie Redmayne in anything, it was a supporting role in Les Miserables (aka two and a half hours of Why Won’t These People Stop Singing). I disliked the character and the performance, but as noted in my review of the previous Fantastic Beasts, that viewpoint was likely influenced by my dislike for musicals in general. I liked his work in the previous film, and that status quo remains in place here. Newt is a soft spoken, shy sort who doesn’t particularly want to get involved, who’d like to stay neutral and just do his thing, but who rises to the occasion and comes into his own. He does the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do (if only more people had that quality), and that’s something to respect in a character. Newt might have a disregard for following orders, which he shows repeatedly, but he’s the sort of character you can count on in a crisis, and that’s what Redmayne plays to.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald doesn’t have the same energy as the first film, which brought a new dynamic to the world of magic J.K. Rowling created. The script tends to wander a bit too much into exposition and setting the stage for sequels. But the cast more than compensates for that issue, playing their roles with energy and conviction. What happens next is yet to be seen, but it’s not likely to involve Gellart “Billy Idol” Grindelwald singing Rebel Yell at midnight to a bunch of Muggles. 


  1. I haven't seen either of these films but because of your post I will look to see if the first one is on Netflix.
    Thanks William

    cheers, parsnip and badger

  2. I liked the movie, but Emily and I agreed it seemed ... dense. The exposition and setting up for the future, as you said.

  3. I'll see it on streaming. But then, I see almost everything that isn't Marvel on streaming.


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