Quite possibly one of the loveliest things that good fantasy or magically real films do is transport their audiences to a world far away from their own.
While you are technically still sitting in a cinema, every other part of you, the dreaming, yearning, imaginatively-expansive parts of you are off in places far away from the spilled popcorn and occasional smartphone checkers, aloft on grand adventures that might explore familiar themes but contain a magic that you’ll never find on the 422 bus home.
The second film in J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts cinematic universe, The Crimes of Grindelwald, manages this feat of spiriting heart and soul to worlds far beyond our own, but not, it must be said, as successfully as its superlatively-good predecessor Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
It’s not through want of trying.
Continuing on from the first film, where we saw wannabe wizarding world dictator Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) appear, seemingly from nowhere and put the cat among the established order pigeons, The Crimes of Grindelwald, continues its expansion of the world far beyond Hogwarts.
In many ways, it is as wonderfully transportive as you might want, and expect, following the example of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which took us on an extraordinary journey across the Atlantic to the USA and its equivalent to the world so beautifully outlined in the Harry Potter films, as well into the depth of the suitcase of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) within which exists an entire otherwordly universe full to the brim of the eponymous beasts.
It wasn’t simply that Where to Find Them created these new creatures, places and thing but that it made them into a gloriously alive reality, one in which the characters we came to meet like the hero of the hour, Newt, sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), jovial Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) made sense and in which their adventures were brilliantly realised and came with real excitement and consequence.
The Crimes of Grindelwald definitely retains and builds on the remarkably world-building of the first film but thanks to a fractured narrative that tries to do too much, negating in the process any kind of cohesive storyline, the effect of its merry, and not-so-merry (the sequel is far darker overall) is dissipated, offering a perfectly fine fantasy film but one which pales in comparison to the adventure that started it all.
Part of its inability to be as magically escapist as Where to Find Them comes simply from the fact that it is addressing far weightier, more nightmarish scenarios, ones in which Grindelwald is trying to conjure up a fascist world order where the Pure Blood wizards are in the ascendancy and the No-Maj are simply beasts of burden to do their bidding.
From the Nuremberg-esque style of the final rally to the demagogue-enthralled faithful – one thing The Crimes of Grindelwald is not is subtle, telegraphing visually and verbally that Bad Things Are Happening and Are Going to Happen – to the weasel words use by Grindelwald, it is plain that his talk of glorious, freeing self-determination for the Pure Bloods and amicable co-existence are nothing but empty talk.
Like all proto-authoritarian leaders, he tells the crowd what they want to hear, how they want to hear it until it’s too late and they are captive to an agenda that ends up bearing little to no resemblance to the glossy lies dressed as seductively-palatable truth they were sold.
It is clear that this is not going to end up anywhere good – there are three films yet to go in the franchise so it will definitely go much darker before it goes lighter again – and since we are only in film two of five, there is little to leaven the darkness this time around.
That includes precious little screen time for Newt’s marvellous beasts – the glittery bling-acquiring Niffler and tree-like Bowtruckle return and there are new creatures including Scottish mythological creature the Kelpie, the fearsomely-feline Matagot and the Chinese cat-like Zouwu, many of whom live in a multi-environment bigger-on-the-inside basement below his home – who make appearances and have a part to play in the plot but who, alas, do not feature as heavily as they did in the first film.
Partly that’s because the narrative doesn’t have as much room for them or their (largely) whimsical antics – I say “largely” because both the Matagot and the winged skeleton horses, the Thestrals, are the stuff of nightmares – busy as it is following everyone on mostly solo outings that eventually coalesce but not until well into the film, but it’s also because it’s the people that take centre stage in a story that looks less at the the playfulness of creatures and more at the wickedness of humanity, magical or not.
Understanding in your head why they’re not there as much as one thing but part of the charm of Where to Find Them was the way the creatures brought so many people, like Newt and Jacob together and drove so much of the plot and in The Crimes of Grindelwald that aspect is noticeably absent, for completely arguably-good reason, and the franchise suffers a little as a result.
The biggest issue with The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is a fine, highly-enjoyable film, though not a great one and certainly not in the first film’s league, is that it simply tries to do too much in too little time.
134 minutes may sound like plenty of time to do lots of things, and on one level you’d be right, but the sequel overreaches a tad, scattering everyone to the four winds, robbing of us of much of the vibrantly-rewarding character interplay that so defined Where to Find Them, giving them to much to do, and stuffing far too much exposition into too small an amount of time.
It makes sense in part – this is the second film of five and so in effect the world is still being built as is the growing, overarching narrative, but the issue is that too much is attempted without the benefit of a cohesive storyline that would allow the film to stand on its own two magical feet.
It is a common issue with the middle films of any franchise which must simultaneously keep building and building but tell a story all their own but The Crimes of Grindelwald fails on the second count, despite its best efforts (Credence, played by Ezra Miller is the character around which everything, technically at least, pivots, and who – SPOILER ALERT – is the recipient of quite a revelatory twist), it is fails to weave the kind of invigoratingly-immersive narrative that made watching Where to Find Them such a diverting pleasure.
For all that though, The Crimes of Grindelwald is overall another buoyantly-escapist diversion from the everyday, albeit one threaded with a dark, troubling reflection of today’s slide nationalistic horrors, that manages to take on yet another voyage into the fantastical, one which we sorely need right now in a world where it’s hard to tell whether art is imitating life or the reverse.