Film | Fantastic Beasts - consistently frustrating and at times infuriating - a Confundus hex at work
Six months after Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) was seemingly eviscerated and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) arrested by the Magical Congress of the United States, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) discovers that the former has somehow survived while the latter has inevitably escaped. Declining invitations from both the Ministry of Magic and Albus Dumbledore to pursue Credence on conflicting terms, Newt instead travels to Paris -- where Credence was recently sighted -- so that he and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) can reconcile with Tina and Queenie Goldstein respectively. As Grindelwald convenes a rally and the authorities (including Callum Turner's Theseus Scamander and Zoë Kravitz's Leta LeStrange) prepare to crash it, Newt struggles to reconcile his pacifist ideals with his duty to protect those he loves.
Harry Potter had it easy -- both as a character and as a film series. Not only did he have the support of his friends, teachers and the greater part of J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World but the franchise had legions of forgiving fans who cherished the original books but didn't mind if their childhood hero's eye-colour was lost in adaptation. Newt Scamander and Fantastic Beasts, meanwhile, have a much harder time of it -- much like Scamander is under constant scrutiny from the Ministry so the spin-off is being mercilessly picked apart by those same fans. Since the release of the relatively well regarded first film a series of controversies including the casting of Depp and the downplaying of Dumbledore's sexuality disinfranchised many and caused a fracture in the once unbreakable relationship between Rowling and her once loyal readers.
Where once Rowling's character insights and Twitter revelations were welcomed they now caused only contention, serving only to jeopardise the coherence and cohesiveness of the Wizarding World she had created. So when it was revealed that Nagini the snake would be played by a woman of colour or that Professor McGonagall would appear in a film set ten years prior to her established birth many balked. Steve Kloves' role as screenwriter on the Harry Potter films had lent them a degree of separation from the core texts, but when Rowling undertook the role of writer on Fantastic Beasts and its sequels she inadvertently raised questions about canon that have never really been answered -- is Fantastic Beasts beholden to the Harry Potter films or books? This also means that many of her bad habits as a novelist went unchecked in the writing process, leaving her love of convoluted lineages and complicated plots to leak into the screenplay. As a result, fans will likely enter the film with questions about continuity while more casual viewers will leave utterly confounded by the plot.
It's a shame, really, because like the first film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is packed with interesting ideas and arresting imagery -- even despite the Detectable Extension Charm that has been placed on its running time. Like before, Newt makes for an unconventionally passive but still counter-intuitively charismatic protagonist -- as Dumbledore explains, it is precisely because Hufflepuff Newt doesn't crave power for himself that makes him the perfect wizard for the job of usurping it from another. His latest acquisitions are similarly impressive, with a Scottish kelpie and Chinese zouwu stealing the spotlight even in the obviously truncated scenes in which they appear. And then, of course, there's Hogwarts, a sight for sore, homesick eyes following its absence from the previous film. Some of the strongest scenes in the film take place on school grounds between Albus and Leta, teasing aspects of both characters that go sadly unexplored, making you wonder why on Earth the story seems so preoccupied with characters like Jacob and Credence whose journeys could so easily have been left completed at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt's new assistant is introduced only to be immediately forgotten.
There's no denying that The Crimes of Grindelwald signals considerable intrigue ahead, not just thanks to the twists and turns of the last act but as a result of the crumbling boundaries between magic and muggle worlds. Grindelwald's machinations are handled particularly well, especially in his framing of the coming war and his invocation of the real-life atrocities in Europe, and the sight of tanks and biplanes flying over wizarding heads is tantalisingly iconoclastic. However, as a film in its own right it remains consistently frustrating and at times infuriating. Confused writing, staging and editing all conspire to confound, so that even when it charms there remains a sneaking suspicion that it might instead be a Confundus hex at work.