Two years ago, almost to the day, I surprised myself by absolutely loving Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the first film to come from the magical pen of J K Rowling since Harry Potter got all grownup, married Ginny, had kids and became something dull at the Ministry of Magic.
This was a fresh start and I adored almost everything about what was billed – and still is, as far as I know – the first in a five-film series. I loved the wonderful visual effects that allowed the delicious re-creation of New York in the Twenties, I loved Eddie Redmayne’s floppily foppish performance as magi-zoologist Newt Scamander, and I loved that Rowling was at last getting to show what she could do with a cast of good actors playing proper grown-up characters.
I even loved the potentially very silly ‘fantastic beasts’ – all those nifflers, bowtruckles and vast erumpents – and, as I awarded the whole thing a stonking five stars, found myself admitting that I’d been moved to the brink of tears by the touching final scenes. Baked goods and magical memory wipes always get me that way.
Two years on, however, as the second film arrives in cinemas, my reaction couldn’t be more dismayingly different. The Crimes Of Grindelwald is an unmagical muddle weighed down with too many characters making too many speeches, desperately hoping that the still-excellent visual effects will get them out of trouble. Sadly, for all but the most hardcore Rowling fan, they won’t.
This time around, I was bored, then confused, then pretty much gave up. I didn’t know where Newt and the gang were heading but, even more importantly, I didn’t care either. Something has clearly gone badly wrong, with the most likely explanation being a misplaced faith on the part of the all-powerful Rowling, who once again provides her own screenplay, that she can always write her way out of trouble, introducing a new 20 character here, adding a new bit of convenient magic there. Here, however, it’s trouble she writes herself straight into.
It’s tempting to say that the problems are apparent right from the start, but that wouldn’t be true. I enjoyed getting reacquainted with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), whose aim is evil dominion over the non-maj or Muggle world. Thank heaven, then, that Newt and the gang are around to stop him, no?
The problem is that this time Redmayne’s performance as Scamander seems to amount to little more than a floppy fringe, mumbled affectation and a rather confused love life. Is it Tina (Katherine Waterston) or his brother’s fiancee, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), he’s supposed to be in love with? Once again, I certainly didn’t care but, more damagingly, as far as I could tell, nor did Newt.
As the action races between late Twenties London and Paris (neither as memorably recreated as New York in the first film), the problem of keeping up becomes more serious. Yes, it’s a nice moment of Potter completeness when we meet a young Albus