Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (PG)
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Directed by David Yates
There are plenty of fantastic beasts in this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
A ferocious Chinese dragon-dog combo with a swirling red tail looks ready for Chinese New Year. Blue-flamed flying monsters light up the night sky in its explosive pyro-filled showdown outdoing even our best fireworks at National Day Parade. A beautiful Asian chick (Avengers: Age Of Ultron's Claudia Kim) transforms into a giant snarling snake to thrill probably even Lord Voldemort himself (Harry Potter fans, you know what I'm talking about).
And dig this — Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the awkward, girl-shy beast whisperer here — sits astride a Loch Ness Monster seaweed creature rodeo-style in what looks like Aquaman's watery lair. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “wet and wild ride”.
But the real beast here is the proverbial beast of burden. The burden of a continuing legacy, freshly imaginative stories and a especially high sense of anticipation which this overlong, fan-dense film inevitably bears.
Does The Crimes of Grindelwald deliver? Well, yes and no.
The trademark HP look, meticulously maintained by long-time director David Yates, is typically spot-on. The cast is English-tea and American-moxie pitch perfect, the sets are Oscar-worthy, the 1920s era costumes may bring back nostalgic trends, the special effects are a high art, and, man, what gorgeous views of vintage London and Paris this flick conjures as its characters love to meet on rooftops.
Now, the not-so-good news. Without an actual novel series to base things on and suggest more insight except for an introductory book written way back in 2001, author/storyteller/true magician JK Rowling flips the scenes here — the second installment in a series of five movies — straight to business as their sole screenwriter.
She simply gets on with it with an uncelebratory second-child treatment while waiting for no one to catch up. Basically, if you're an uninformed Muggle, you'd need a guide book to not only know the new characters showing up here but to reacquaint with the old ones too.
Continuing the extensive world of good wands pointing at bad wands that's cooking in Rowling's incredibly fertile mind, Newt and his merry band of misfits take on the Big Darkness, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, basking in pasty-faced baddie mode), dripping seductive evil while looking like an albino Dracula going full-on Magneto.
Similar to that mutant leader in X-Men, Grindelwald has a twisted grand vision of uniting his supernatural kind against the rest of lesser, un-magical mankind in an impending war for survival. “The great gift of our cause is not for me, it's for yourselves,” he lures minions to his side with Trump-type truthfulness.
Boy, you look at this guy. He's a deceitful manipulator of us-versus-them fearmongering, and yet, somehow people are still hopelessly bewitched by him. Surely this sort of crazy stuff only happens in the fantasy world of movies, right?
Anyway, Newt and Grindelwald hightail to Paris, circa 1927. The former defies a direct order to stay put in London imposed by the stuffy suits of the Ministry Of Magic due to his previously unapproved wrecking of New York City in 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
Although seriously, what's a ridiculous travel ban when folks here can just pop instantly in and out from place to place and one can squeeze entirely into a little bucket to zip right across the English Channel?
Both good wizard and bad sorcerer are hot on the trail of the overtly troubled but innately powerful Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, the Flash in Justice League). The fella is a hot commodity because, as witnessed in the first film, he possesses a latently awesome power to reduce places to smithereens whenever he's severely pissed off.
After evading capture in the first flick, the introspectively edgy Credence desperately wants to know his true identity and bloodline as he searches for his unknown parents in France. Is he half-blood, full-blood or all-nuts magical?
I just have to say that both Miller and Redmayne are dudes you'd want if you ever need coaching to become geeks. They are masters in the fine art of saying their lines shyly while looking furtively down sideways.
Meanwhile, everyone else here also seems to have a personal family issue. Newt clashes with his Ministry official brother, Theseus (Callum Turner). There is a confusing subplot about damaged witch Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and her mysterious half-brother. While a younger, pre-Potter Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) passes the job of confronting Grindelwald to former pupil Newt because he has a past history with the nasty fella in which they were both “more than brothers”.
I was actually thinking, Hey, isn't this a convenient cop-out until I was interrupted in my mind by Freddie Mercury popping up from Bohemian Rhapsody wailing about one pained man loving another pained man.
Now, I like the upgrades — thematic, cathartic and quirky — here. The new entry into the alternate magical universe is a phase-through straight into a single solitary statue in Paris instead of that huge railway station in London in the HP movies (Potter fans, take note — your beloved Hogwarts School makes a comeback here).
But there still is, behind this mish-mesh world of wizards, witches and No-Majs (non-magical people), just a sense of no-fun. The opening scene involving Grindelwald escaping in an airborne horse carriage is a real kicker. But as the film plots on, it also plods on.
Long gone tellingly are the youthful wonderment and curious charm of school children. The adults have wholly hijacked the franchise here. And with them comes a grown-up sense of seriousness less innocent and so palpable that as they carry on with their mature matters, even a little kid can be magic-wanded off into oblivion in the starkest display of “We're not in Kansas anymore” revamp.
Thankfully it's off-camera, but mind you, even merciless homicidal psychopath Michael Myers refrained from offing a child in his recent Halloween reboot. With Rowling in such an unsentimental mood writing her movie, it is up to main man Newt to bring some tentative delight back into the proceedings. Armed with his Mary Poppins suitcase of fantastic beasts, Oscar winner Redmayne is the film's essential weird creature.
“I want you to be happy, but I don't want you to be happy because I'm happy,” he mumbles nervous sweet talk with his huge crush, the no-nonsense sorceress Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).
Now, even Muggles can relate happily to the earthy magic in that. (***1/2)
Photo: TPG News/Click Photos