Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ stuffed with too much
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018
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New York Times| TGIF

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ stuffed with too much

  • "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is the second of five all new adventures in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World.
  • WARNER BROS. PICTURES

    Jude Law, left, stars as a young Albus Dumbledor and Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

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“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

**

(PG-13, 2:14)

The team behind “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” throws an awful lot at the screen during this clotted two-hour-plus diversion, the latest installment in the J.K. Rowling-verse. As is often the case in a Rowling production, evil is ascendant, seeping through both human and magic realms like poison gas.

Mostly, though, because Rowling builds worlds, what “Grindelwald” has is a great deal of story. The movie is chockablock with stuff: titular creatures (if not nearly enough), attractive people, scampering extras, eye-catching locations, tragic flashbacks, teary confessions and largely bloodless, spectacular violence. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and it’s suffocating.

This is the second movie in what promises (threatens!) to be an extended “Fantastic Beasts” franchise. (Rowling spun this series out of the “Harry Potter” cycle, so subfranchise might be more correct.) It centers on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” who studies, rescues and nurses magical critters. The movie picks up in New York in the mid-1920s, the end point of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” With its cloche hats, Model T’s, art deco flourishes and a Jazz Age vibe, the scenery is a handsomely designed.

Not much has happened since the last movie. Once again, Newt is scurrying about while nefarious doings unfold in separate storylines. One is dominated by Gellert Grindelwald (a perfectly unmemorable Johnny Depp), an evil wizard who looks like he’s been dipped in flour (and who last appeared in the more flattering form of Colin Farrell). Grindelwald is consolidating his power and has big plans. These have become more transparent as fascism has seeped into the story, totalitarianism’s threat increasingly giving dark meaning to all the violence and ugly phrases like “pure blood.”

Rowling is a literary magpie and first-rate synthesizer, and her stated inspirations for the Harry Potter books range from classical mythology to Jane Austen. Traces of the Bible, Shakespeare, Tolkien and other Western-lit staples are sprinkled throughout that series and therefore this one, too. However intentional, they form part of a cultural database, which is as smart as it is appealing. Given some of these influences, it’s no surprise that the series is touched by death; given the arc of history, it’s also no surprise that it has morphed into an apocalyptic war story.

A bleak, violent end — and the intimation of a worldwide cataclysm — looms from the very first scene of “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Directed by David Yates and written by Rowling, the movie opens with a fierce, visually chaotic prison break that springs Grindelwald and sets the angry mood. The bad times rush in along with the assorted villains bringing escalating violence. By the time Newt materializes with his magical suitcase, where he often keeps his roaring, scuttling menagerie (mostly, sometimes) contained, the movie already seems like a series finale. It’s so freighted with foreboding that even the would-be whimsy feels leaden.

The darkness makes a startling contrast to the first movie, which mostly involved a lot of narrative place setting. Most of the characters are back, including Tina (Katherine Waterston), a law-and-order type called an Auror and Newt’s limp romantic foil. One of the disappointments of the “Fantastic Beasts” movies has been the casting, which has little of the wit and powerhouse talent that shored up the Harry Potter series. Redmayne can be a sensitive presence, but when he isn’t well directed his fluttering and darting looks quickly settle into ingratiating shtick.

That the contents of Newt’s suitcase are consistently more interesting than he is remains a problem, too. Rowling keeps trying to make him and the mysterious Credence (Ezra Miller) the narrative’s twinned center. Yet your attention keeps returning, almost longingly, to the movie’s funnier, more charming supporting players, notably Queenie (a delightful Alison Sudol) and Jacob (the equally appealing Dan Fogler). They have the charming idiosyncrasies and human frailties of Rowling’s best creations, and they prove to be the ones you care most about.

On the page, Rowling is a master storyteller, creating worlds so richly populated and densely textured that you can easily summon them up in your mind without ever having watched a single adaptation of her work. What occasionally trips her up is plot structure — the arrangement of all her attractive, whirling parts. Rowling has surrendered to her maximalist tendencies and so cluttered up the story that you spend far too much time trying to untangle who did what to whom and why.

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