J.K. Rowling is a writer with inventive wit, able to pour out the texture and the minutia of a world of witchcraft and wizardry; and to allow for such a setting to feel both tangible and intimately homespun, that’s an excellent way to make someone believe in magic. However, there is an impression of real-world dilemmas and socio-political issues that, unlike most of her genre contemporaries, was never present throughout the books, at least not at the forefront of her story. In her newest venture, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” there is a level of reflection, of materialized mirroring, near the finale of the film that fabricates itself like the icing on the top of a cake for a sequel that not only supersedes the first film, but perhaps it even makes it feel unnecessary.
The first film followed a beat-for-beat storytelling method, one that invoked the essence of nostalgia in that of its texture; how the film felt and was visioned in the same framework of a “Harry Potter” movie, but mine, and many others, issue was the lack of anew, the lack of obliterating a story that ties into the grooves of this prequelized tale. There was an embellishment to be had with Rowling and Yates’ first feature film two years ago; it was a distraction for those looking for cover, looking for shelter from the political meteor shower that was the 2016 Presidential election.
Now, Rowling seems unabashed, un-phased, in weaponizing her world of diversity and ancient-ideologies as a fun-house mirror reflection to the one being seen on the news waves of every mundane morning. But before we get there, allow me to iterate that “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is not reliant on such a juxtaposition of real-world issues. No, instead, there is a furthering of an investigation, a furthering of curiosity launched into the Potter-verse. There is a spell within the midst of this chase-filled, safari-like hunt of a sequence, that allows for a feather to act like that of a compass, pointing and arrowing you in the direction of what is magnetized to the other end of the feather.
This sort of enchantment feels as if it's indicative of the point of our newest adventure into the land of mischief and sorcery, in which we open with a sequence that mirrors that of the opening in “Deathly Hallows Part 1.” The rain-drenched, thunderstorm-ridden, gliding chase sequence in which men and women on brooms swerve and dive in the evasion of lightning bolts and offensive maneuvers from dark magic. It’s an easy sell for me, one of those scenes that can get the movie off to a good start for yours truly.
From there, we catch up with magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, as subtle and brilliant as last time). Following the events of the first film, his travel permissions have been revoked in the wake of the destruction of New York City. A proposition put forth is that of his aligning with the ministry of magic in hunting down and capturing the now-escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a compromise that Newt is unable to agree upon. He’s a man wanting to remain in the shadows, his naivety and innocence acting like that of a blindfold from the impending war on the horizon; and there are a few moments of isolation, of solidarity, in which we begin to get peek behind the curtain that is Newt Scamander. But, as our main character, I still feel refrained from jumping onto team-Newt. I just can’t find something to latch onto, something to tether myself to, an anchor for me to tie myself onto; at least, that hasn’t happened yet.
That is one of the more significant flaws for me that continues to plague this newest iteration of magical-allegories, and part of me resonates with that struggle of recoloring and redefining the significant empty canvas and silhouette-like vacancy that is the inevitable replacement of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Nevertheless, you can’t have a great story without a protagonist for us to care about; but Rowling can seemingly have a good-enough story alongside that barren landscape of heroism.
To my surprise, there is a lot to like about the newest entree into the Potter-verse. It retains that maintenance of visually, hand-crafted magic, bringing this world to life in a way that was as empowering and as breathtaking as the first film in which we meet and acquaint ourselves with new and more ferocious creatures. Like that of the cutesy fan-fair of the Niffler’s, the adorable and scavenger-ish creatures who are now even smaller and cuter than the previous movie. There is also a gigantic, Chinese-stylized, cat-like beast that swoons the audience into a frenzy on more than one occasion, touching upon that misunderstanding of a predator-like subtext.
All of that is splendid, manifesting that escapism, that launching into the fantasy, that allows for the film to have moments of splendor in this elegant collage of alchemy and illusion. The cinematography has some gratifyingly steady shots of 1930s Paris, capturing the beauty found in the calmness of the water, that moment before a new-wave, before a new storm disturbs the peace.
Which is sort of what this story is about: the rising of a storm, the seduction of a demagogue, the lust for someone to tell “the world is broken, and only I can fix it.” Unlike the first film’s reliance on the handsome production and the period-piece recreation of a time that is now a go-to source for contextualized imagery, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” doesn’t necessarily carry the torch further, but decides to find a different path for our journey to divert upon.
Dont’ get me wrong, Newt is basically a glorified dogcatcher and a lot of the Dumbledore's moments feel as if they’re screaming out to you “look its dumbledore guys! You guys love Dumbledore, right?” That said, our continuing examining of Credence (Ezra Miller), an Obscurial (a wizard who has repressed his magical abilities, which, in this case, has forced it to manifest itself in the form of an Obscurus: a dark, destructive, and chaotic entity.), and how that character becomes like that of a fully-lived-in archetype of the unhealthy neurosis that can develop when you deny who you are. The self-destructive elements of that battle that is metamorphosized in the subtext of this narrative, his mission to learn his true identity. (And, boy does he. A third act reveal of epic proportions) That kind of reflection is something that, alongside Rowling’s political overtones, has always felt stilted, volume down, upstaged by the simplicity of a boy’s love, his dreams, his fears, and the sheer amount of acumen and empathy that Rowling infuses into that character.
But, that subsided story-line of hostility and persecution of the No-Maj, the Muggle, the humans in these stories and how that political discussion mutates from the background and into the spotlight of this movie is a welcomed, and nuanced, transformation to our story. How our characters, like that of Jacob (Dan Fogler, toned down just a bit here) and Quennie (Alison Sudol, ironically volumed up), become tempted and ensnared by the promises of a strong man, of a man telling them that he will give them everything they want if they pledge themselves to his cause, that he wants what they want. How that finale of a rally, a man in the center of an arm-crossed, hate-filled, pure-blooded crowd of sorcerers and witches, oozes that parable of another powerful, blonde-headed man’s rallies of propaganda, of division, of “I understand what’s wrong with the world, and only I can fix it” shenanigans. How Grindelwald incites his followers with words of division, with promises of a better world, a world with more freedom to choose who you want to be. His power derives from his manipulation of minds, not from his wand.
It’s one of those timely, and precise developments of the story that reminds you of the “he who shall not be named” shadow that lurks beyond our screen. How that same doom-and-gloom entity stalks and seemingly looms over our fantasies, over everything that is good and fair in this society, and I am not talking about Voldemort here.
That kind of evolution, that kind of difference in aim by Rowling, is welcomed. Yates is splendid too, manifesting and fabricating the world of ambiance and cinematic-magic once again. Redmayne, Law, Depp, and others provide excellently, nailed down, performances. But, that emerging of difference, that identification of what makes this story different, and in some ways, more important than the one prior; that style of creation is fantastically adept and revealing of the deft that lurks behind the skilled penmanship of Rowling. She’s been outspoken on these issues, on this troubling churning of events, and I am glad she’s parabling her world of witchcraft and wizardry with a world that needs to remember what it is to believe; what a magical second chapter this turned out to be.