By John H. Foote
If there is one aspect of the Harry Potter universe that I think was criminally underappreciated it was the production design. Audiences were plunged into worlds described by Miss Rowling in her splendid books, and the wizards within Hollywood had created. Hogwarts Castle was a miracle of engineering and fantastical designs with ghostly paintings, moving staircases and the Great Hall, with its ever-changing sky. Equally fine was the cinematography in each film, with its soaring shots high above Hogwarts and the camera moving quickly through the bowels of the great castle. Remember those thrilling Quidditch matches? Stunning to behold even if I did not have a clue what the game was all about. Potter had to catch the ball? Superb each time out.
I daresay that Miss Rowling might be the most influential writer of the 20th century, leading children back to books, delighting with her story which became one of the greatest movie franchises in history.
We followed the adventures of Harry, Hermione and Ron through hell and back, dark and frightening stories in which they each faced far worse than death more than once. I mourned the final Potter film, it was the end of an era, like saying farewell forever to an old friend. When I heard that they were going to create another franchise taking place within the Potter franchise before Harry was born, I was interested, and the first film did not disappoint.
Once again the film centers on the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a magizoologist, meaning like Hagrid in years to come he cares for the fantastical creatures within this world. Opening where the previous film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), left off in 1920’s New York City, the change of locale offers an interesting bit of design change, moving towards Art Deco and the Jazz Age. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is consolidating his power and, like Voldemort to come, is using his dark magic to take over the wizarding world and eliminate those who are not pure-blooded wizards.
From the very beginning of this film it is steeped in a sense of doom, of something terrible yet to come and races towards that conclusion. LIke the Potter books and films, Rowling was never afraid to kill off a major character if it moved the narrative along, if it made sense. Some of the greatest moments of the Potter films were those dealing out death, from Harry’s parents, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, one of the Weasley twins, the evil Lestrange, Voldemort himself, and Harry dying, only to be brought back to life. Throughout this new film there is such a sense of foreboding, there is a challenge to really enjoy the film. We realize from the very beginning that we are headed in the direction of some sort of wizard apocalypse, and it gives the film, the entire film a darkness from which it cannot escape.
By the time Newt shows up with his suitcase of magic, the narrative is well in motion. Asked to help find Creedence (Ezra Miller) before Grindelwald gets to him, he reluctantly agrees.
A word about Redmayne as Newt.
Yes, he is an Oscar-winning actor, superb as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) and very fine in Les MIserables (2012). But he is one of those fine actors who requires direction or his “acting” quickly becomes a schtick. Darting looks here and there, furtive glances about, looking down at the ground as he speaks, seemingly shy but really being coy, it all becomes tiresome VERY quickly. I will give him this, here he dives into some of the character’s darker characteristics, with no thought to how it might impact what the audience thinks of him. Granted we do have the benefit of watching the actors literally grow in front of us as we did with the Potter kids. Thank God we have interesting supporting players all around him to drive the story.
The best of them, though with limited screen time, is Jude Law as the young, already powerful and wise Dumbledore. Law infuses him with the essence of both Richard Harris and Michael Gambon, who portrayed him as an old man, and we can see this dashing young wizard becoming that wise old man. The scenes with Newt are bizarre, oddly flirtatious, suggesting Dumbledore might have been a homosexual, long a rumor. Whatever. If Rowling says so, then so be it. Truly what does it matter??
Johnny Depp, looking like he was dipped in candy frosting, is wasted here as the villain Grindelwald, just a grinning psychopath and I am not sure at all what he is doing in the picture. Ezra Miller, a genuinely gifted young actor, is also more or less cast aside with a couple of key scenes and then forgotten.
Back from the first film, and giving lovely performances, are Dan Fogler as Jacob and Alsion Sudol as Queenie, each delightful bursting into the early stages of the film, bringing utter enchantment to the screen. That enjoyable chemistry they had in the first film is back, however briefly here, and while it lasts we cannot take our eyes off the screen.
Most of the characters find themselves in Paris, the wizardly world of the great city, amidst carnivals, and back alleys that look like the places Harry Potter did his shopping for school. This allows the designers to have a great time and what they offer is a feast for the eyes, far more interesting than anything in the plot. And the fantastic creatures are just that, each more wondrous than the next.
This is where the film goes off the rails with simply too many personalities, too many major plot twists and too much going on to find any sense of a driving narrative. Rowling continues to explore her curiosity for totalitarianism, which was vividly explored in all of the Potter films, and again here. Grindelwald is clearly a Voldemort before there was a Dark Lord, a truly bad guy, and feared by Dumbledore and Newt with good reason.
Director David Yates again directs a film set in the Potter universe and once again keeps it moving with breathtaking speed. But this time there is too much to cram into a two-hour film, even a film screen because it is all but bursting at the frame with all put in. Eventually, it becomes too much to take in, like Jumanji (1995) far too noisy for me.
Made me long for Voldemort and to hear Snape whisper with masked hatred (we know now)….”Potter…”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.