Just to preface this, I’ll note that Harry Potter is well and truly my jam. I was there buying the books at midnight. I lapped up each and every one of the movie adaptations. I’ve visited the studios twice, have Potter Funko Pops, wands, mugs, keyrings and chocolate frogs. I’ve literally been there, seen it and worn the t-shirt. The reason I say this is that even I found myself unable to explain much of what occurs in the Fantastic Beast sequel, so I dread to think how lost anyone coming late to the party will cope.
The problem is, I’m not sure that it’s a case of needing an in-depth prior knowledge of what comes before (and of what’s yet to come) to appreciate the plot, as, well, I have that. Moreso it’s that a lot of it simply doesn’t make a great deal of sense. And, though it pains me to say it, that’s largely down to J.K. Rowling’s uncharacteristically uneven screenplay. Somehow it manages to feel like it’s both trying to cram everything and the kitchen sink in, and that little is being moved forward simultaneously. There are lots of flashbacks and hops across nations, and yet all that travel seems to take the story sideways, instead of propelling it onward.
In a scramble to link every aspect of Fantastic Beasts to the larger Potterverse, several leaps of logic are taken which leave more questions than answers, as well as a baffling conclusion to the film. That’s not to say that there’s no joy to be had in seeing familiar faces and places return. The introduction of a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, playing a small but crucial role) and trips to the Great Hall at Hogwarts and the majestic Ministry of Magic, in particular, bring the feels. But with a five-movie saga planned, did everything really need to be piled in here?
Often it’s the new corners, characters and creatures of the wizarding world which we get to explore that provide the standout moments. The colourful beasts, intricate costumes and vibrant locales are as expertly designed as you’d expect. Series veteran production designer Stuart Craig continues to breathe magic into every inch of the sets, giving each area a unique flavour. It’s in one new location, a magical Parisian street circus, that we reconvene with Ezra Miller’s powerful and desperate Credence. Playing out as a big game of cat and mouse, Credence hunts for the truth of his past whilst he himself is being hunted by genocidal wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) for his power. Meanwhile, the heroes scamper after the pair in an attempt to halt Grindelwald’s rise. Which sounds streamlined enough on paper, yet in practice, it’s anything but.
Depp, the proverbial elephant in Fantastic Beast’s room, is…fine as the titular mischief-maker, if a touch flat until deep into the plot. He’s perhaps not as menacing as you’d hope (Voldemort’s crown as top Potter villain is firmly affixed), but visually he certainly looks the part, with ghostly pale skin, bleached white hair and disconcertingly miscoloured eyes. It’s just a shame that we don’t actually see a) the criminal past which has made him so feared, or b) him really committing all that much crime until right at the film’s end. Unless we count him sitting on a rooftop and scheming as a crime. In the Potter series, we were four films in by the point of Voldemort’s full reveal, his prior transgressions eked out over the three preceding entries. He’s a fully fleshed out character before he’s, erm, fully fleshed out. Here, in a rush to place Grindelwald front and centre, it appears to have been forgotten to tell us anything substantial about him.
Thankfully, as in the last film the protagonists are an enjoyable group to spend a couple of hours with. Dan Fogler delivers comedic chops as Kowalski, Katherine Waterston’s Tina is far more than a love interest, and Eddie Redmayne’s awkward yet charming Newt is the perfect lead. The only blip among the core characters comes in the form of Alison Sudol’s Queenie. Sudol is endearing, but her character’s choices are confounding, to put it mildly. We also get beasts aplenty, courtesy of Newt’s suitcase of wonders; Pickett, a feisty stick insect Bowtruckle, the Niffler, a furry stealer of treasures and scenes, and the Zouwu, a giant straggly cat-like creature, to name but a few. It’s Newt and his interactions with his animals and the magical world that are the film’s highlight. Too bad that he’s regularly left as a bystander as those around him trudge their way through the heavily talky narrative. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Exposition might have been a more accurate title.
This is the sixth film David Yates has directed in the franchise, and it’s by far his least focused effort. One misstep in six isn’t a bad hit rate, but another step backwards such as this may well see the Fantastic Beasts franchise go out with a whimper, rather than a roar.
Rating (out of 5):