by Tony Ruggio
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a pleasant surprise, even if it were a step down from the last Potter or the last two Potters, but that’s a high bar to clear. Crimes of Grindelwald is an even bigger surprise because not only does it nearly clear that highest of bars, it does so in the midst of decidedly mixed reviews elsewhere and a bit of a shrug everywhere. People side-eye a prequel and they’re right to in the wake of Phantom Menace many years ago, the prequel that ruined it for all other prequels. Though Grindelwald may suffer from a bit of bloated backstory itself, franchise stalwart David Yates is a better director than George Lucas and does not resort to retconning or childish retooling. A master of atmosphere and consummate craftsman, he and Rowling have rendered the wizarding world of Newt Scamander and Gellert Grindelwald through the sturdy lens of magical zoology and religious zealotry, not to mention French cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot’s exquisite detail and eye candy.
Magical zoology was a key up-side to the original spin-off, introducing Potter fans and neophytes alike to a myriad of creatures and critters, like a stormy thunderbird and a twiggy bowtruckle, or a greedy niffler and a giddy billywig. Cheeky introductions continue in Crimes of Grindelwald, with everything from a Japanese water demon to a Chinese New Year dragon rearing its cute or ugly head to aid or entangle the animal-friendly Scamander, a man who never met a beast he couldn’t love. There’s even a chupacabra named Antonia and a part-deer, part snake named Patrick. That Chinese dragon is Zouwu, actually a big giant cat that can fly up to one-thousand miles in a single day and succumbs to a little jingle, possibly the funniest moment of any Potter film to date, if not the cutest. No, that belongs to bowtruckle Pickett, Scamander’s leafy pocket friend and lock-picker. They’re all there to enliven what might be somewhat familiar proceedings to some, that of Aurors and ministries in a race to fend off a growing threat from a dark wizard on the war path. Scamander and his buddies are but quirky and cuddly window dressing for the usual battle between good and evil, only somehow the dressing works. The dressing seems real, something you can reach out and touch. Eddie Redmayne’s quiet performance as Newt is beguiling and also frustrating as he mumbles dialogue in nearly every scene. He comes alive, however, whenever faced with old friend and flirt Tina, played by Katherine Waterston. A scene or two between Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Allison Sudol) were some of the best unexpected romance of year 2016, and it’s no different here between Tina and Newt, oddballs and opposites drawn to one another. Their chemistry is palpable and their future is promising if a late meet-cute about salamanders has anything to say about it.
Like in New Salem, the American No-Mag group of Mary Lou Barebone in Where to Find Them, religious zealotry is a common theme in Grindelwald, both film and character. After enjoying career renaissance and heartthrob curio status at the height of Pirates mania, Johnny Depp has since become something of an industry pariah, at the mercy of tabloid fodder and woke Twitter frothing that has accused him of a chargeless claim. Or maybe I’m a mere Doug Stanhope devotee, a believer in the man who calls Depp a good friend. Whatever the case, Depp’s potential transgressions have no bearing on art or entertainment. He’s either a treasure or a nuisance, and while “treasure” might be stretching it, his Grindelwald is the most inspired I’ve seen him since that first dime at Jack Sparrow. He manages to imbue his typical mug job of contact lenses and makeup with a commanding gravitas, a serio-charismatic authority that makes you believe the wizard could lead an army at will. Most importantly, he manages to avoid Voldemort comparisons. Even the anti-muggle rhetoric is different, more subtle, steeped in quasi-religious imagery and language, in stark contrast to the Dark Lord’s constant pureblood Nazi metaphors. Grindelwald is more convincing, and thus, he is thoroughly scary as a new villain. And he’s on the hunt for Ezra Miller’s Credence, an Obscurial wonder and deadly ball of wizarding fury that he hopes to embroil in his cause. Given less to do here, Miller does the best he can with an eternal glare and a hunching gait. Given a third-act reveal, something tells me he’ll have plenty to do come 2020. You see, Credence is embroiled in his own cause, to discover his true nature, his true family, his truest self. Much of said mystery gives way to extraneous flashback and excessive backstory as we learn all about Leta Lestrange’s (Zoe Kravitz) family history and more. In a convoluted series of three-way conversations it is revealed, in addition to much else, one major flaw in Crimes of Grindelwald: too many characters.
Such flaws cannot withstand the sheer joy of Jude Law’s Albus Dumbledore or the sheer majesty of David Yates’ visual aesthetic. I’m no Potter fiend… maybe I’m becoming one. I couldn’t help but smile endlessly at Law’s younger, brasher interpretation of the great wizard and current Hogwarts professor, the glint in his eye that recalls Michael Gambon or his ability to embody both a Dumbledore before his prime and the seeds of that wisest elder to come. As is often the case, Albus is at odds with political authority the Ministry of Magic, this time led by rival Torquil Travers and Newt’s orderly brother Theseus Scamander, played by the robotically intriguing Callum Turner. Travers is a footnote while Theseus only adds to the Jenga pile of peculiar characters fighting for attention. Dumbledore is a crucial piece, not simply fan service or friendly nostalgia. He’s essential to the story of Grindelwald in more ways than one, and I can’t imagine audiences won’t crave more of that cat-and-mouse duel in the franchise. In fact, I now understand the former, once-ridiculed plan of five movies. Convoluted though it is, the scope far surpasses Harry Potter and the yearly adventures at Hogwarts. Yates and Rowling have grander ambitions, not only in addressing those aforementioned themes of zealotry, but deepening the wizarding world in ways not possible beforehand, either due to time or technology. When introducing an entire world to another world, you don’t have the luxury of burrowing deep, and when you’re living in 2001 or 2005, you don’t have the fortune of perfect CGI. They say the pickier the filmmaker, the better the effects. Yates must be a picky son-of-a-bitch because since he took the reins in 2007 his Potter work has been nearly flawless in visual acumen. He’s a conjurer of atmosphere, willing to linger on the oddities and languish in the in-between moments, the sideways glances and mirthful smiles. He’s aided by photography so fanciful and gorgeous I thought it was Bruno Delbonnel’s. Turns out Phillipe Rousselot is a beast of his own.
On the heels of A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker, I have yet again found a fantasy picture more enjoyable than the lot of other critics this year. Maybe I’m turning, becoming a fiend for all things Potter, or perhaps I’m merely appreciating the well-made parts over that confusing whole, the exposition. I gather that repeat viewings will only confirm my initial reaction, that Yates is a fantastic purveyor of fantasy, able to conjure all manner of things bright or unseemly and maintaining the illusion the whole time. That is something taken for granted in 2018, made apparent by the fake sets of Infinity War and the faker green screen of Black Panther.
That he, Rowling, and Rousselot are a match that will continue to pay dividends if given the chance. That time hopefully be kind to Johnny Depp’s reputation as an actor, for he has possibly rediscovered himself as a villain. And that Crimes of Grindelwald is a return to the great heights of latter Potter entries, one ripe with beastly charm and vigorous themes.