Starring Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Johnny Depp and Jude Law.
Warning: Minor Spoilers.
The first fantastic beasts film was a charming, entertaining spin-off that, a few duff side-plots aside, was up there with most of the Potter films in terms of quality. It’s likeable lead quartet of Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie were worthy replacements for Harry, Ron and Hermione, even if Graves/Grindelwald didn’t match up to Voldemort as an antagonist. The cute, loveable magical creatures made up for the dull New York setting and the stupid second salemers subplot. The film’s simplicity, by and large, played in its favour.
The second film always had a few more hurdles to negotiate. Would fans like Jude Law’s take on the young Dumbledore? Would Johnny Depp’s performance put fan discontent at his casting as Grindelwald to rest? Would Rowling tell an inventive story without getting too bogged down in laying the groundwork for film 3 (and potentially films 4 and 5?). Well the casting fears proved unfounded. The script problems reviewers have been mentioning are, unfortunately, evident throughout. There’s too many characters and subplots competing for screentime, which leaves the main quartet a little hard done by, particularly Tina (who is split from Newt thanks to a needless plot contrivance) and Queenie, whose character arc comes a bit out of nowhere and leads to a rather unconvincing twist. On the plus side, Newt and Jacob’s double act is just as heart-warming and funny as it was in the previous film, and both get a decent amount of screentime. Another bonus is the switch of setting from New York to Paris and London – America just isn’t a natural fit for Potter and Paris definitely felt like a more ‘magical’ place for the story to take place.
The film does definitely benefit from having closer ties to Hogwarts and the existing Potter mythos than its predecessor. The flashbacks to Newt and Leta’s time at Hogwarts are some of the best parts of the film, while Jude Law is so perfect for the role of Dumbledore. His performance is the highlight of the film – seeing Dumbledore actually teach was great too – Law gives just the right balance of encouraging, mischievous mentor and regretful, sombre figure who’s still coming to terms with his past. Matching him, somewhat surprisingly, is Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald. Depp’s fallen a long way in the past few years – he’s had more misses than hits in the films he’s done and his personal life has come under intense scrutiny and alienated a sizeable part of his fanbase. All of which makes it all the more surprising that he’s one of the best things in this film. Grindelwald feels a lot more layered and real than Voldemort ever did. While Voldemort was always supposed to be a manifestation of pure evil, Grindelwald is the more real, familiar kind of monster who sees everything he does as right, regardless of the cost. He has a very much ‘ends justify the means’ rationale in this film, and is a lot subtler than Voldemort in the way he tries to win followers to his cause. Depp plays him perfectly, which I never thought I’d say – there’s a lot of charisma, underpinned by malevolence bubbling away underneath the surface – and most crucially, he feels like a real match for Dumbledore, both in power and intellect. Much like Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot in Batman vs Superman, he’s nowhere near as miscast as everyone feared.
Unfortunately, the rest of the new characters struggle to have much of an impact, mainly because there’s just too many of them. Zoe Kravitz gives a good turn as Leta Lestrange, but she’s the exception. Newt’s brother Theseus and newcomer Nagini get bugger all to do throughout, Grindelwald’s followers are all one-note characters with minimal screentime, and none of the ministry figures are as memorably characterised as the likes of Fudge and Umbridge were. Arguably this is a result of Rowling trying to cram too much set-up into this film – everyone’s so busy jockeying for screentime that it’s inevitable some of them get pushed to the sides and largely forgotten. The fantastic beasts themselves don’t fare much better – the Niffler gets plenty of laughs, but there’s only really 3 others on display and they’re more window dressing that essential to the plot this time. Credence’s plot arc takes up a lot of the runtime, and while Ezra Miller plays him well, its still hard to be overly invested in him, and his whole ‘real family’ plotline wasn’t set up well enough in film one to merit so much emphasis here. As for the final twist… we’ll wait and see. It smacks of Rowling re-writing her own mythos, but it could work depending on what they do with it in the next one.
David Yates’ direction isn’t as assured as usual this time round. Given he’s helmed the past 5 Potter films, this is both surprising and rather disappointing. While the visuals are generally stunning, there’s WAY too much cutting during the action scenes (the opening escape sequence is one of the worst shot chase sequences I can remember) and while the effects are good, it’s nothing special until the finale, which finally gives us something memorable as Grindelwald proves just how powerful he really is (seriously, it bests anything Voldemort did on screen). James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is more sombre and foreboding this time round. While its probably not as memorable as the first films, it suits this film well. There’s only a couple of tracks I might consider buying though.
Overall, Fantastic Beasts is an entertaining film which benefits from closer ties to Hogwarts and Dumbledore than its predecessor, but is let down by messy plotting and haphazard direction. The cast work well together, and Johnny Depp and Jude Law are fine additions, but it suffers from trying to cram in too many plotlines and too much set-up (in some ways it reminds me of Amazing Spider-Man 2). The Final act and the Hogwarts flashbacks are great, but we’ll have to wait for film 3 to really get a sense of how all the twists and turns are going to play out.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
I may do reviews of a few more films before the years out (I’ve just rented Solo: A Star Wars Story and I may go and see Mortal Engines in cinema soon).