For movies that are part of the Harry Potter universe, having a title that could pass focus-group muster clearly isn’t much of a concern. Whether the handle is something as multiplex-ready as “Chamber of Secrets” or as alien as “Prisoner of Azkaban,” if it comes from the mind of Potter creator J.K. Rowling it’s bound to be big.
All the same, the title of Friday’s new “Wizarding World” release, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” is a mouthful even by Rowling’s fanciful standards. For one thing, who’d have anticipated feature billing for Johnny Depp’s idiosyncratically monikered villain, rock-god-styled, quasi-Aryan Gellert Grindelwald? (Heck, even Voldemort — pardon us, You-Know-Who — never got those kinda props.)
Still, talk to Jude Law, who joins the “Fantastic Beasts” cast as a suave, fortysomething Albus Dumbledore, and he quickly affirms the franchise’s “In Rowling we trust” outlook. During a call from the film’s global press tour, Law mentions that he’s been friends for years with Eddie Redmayne, who again stars as awkwardly heroic “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. Which leads us to wonder — did their familiarity allow them to play the material a bit loose in their scenes together? “When you’ve got a script by J.K. Rowling,” Law says with a chuckle, “you don’t tend to ad lib.”
But again, about that title — after the 2016 series launch, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” might not the author herself have considered name-checking Newt right up top? After all, it certainly made story sense — and marketing sense — to follow up “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” say, with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” etc. Except that beasts are definitely back in the mix here — everything from Chinese mythology’s feline Zouwu to an entire brood of those duck-billed, bling-addicted Nifflers; and from a cursed changeling with Voldemort ties to, metaphorically at least, Grindelwald’s scary band of supremacists.
Also, the story is as much an ensemble piece as it is Newt’s latest adventure. The plot threads and character arcs are so numerous, in fact, that if Rowling were conjuring them all up in a novel rather than a screenplay, she may well have topped her bookshelf-buckling “Harry Potter” page counts.
Take the maneuverings of young Dumbledore — or “hot Dumbledore,” as some have amusingly tagged Law’s version of the character. The future Hogwarts headmaster wants his erstwhile student Newt to confront Grindelwald for him, never mind the knotty logistics involved. To wit: The dark wizard is in Paris, racing Newt’s plucky love interest, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and others to find powerful, troubled Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Trick is, the British Ministry of Magic has grounded Newt in London for his first-installment exploits abroad.
“What we [learn] is that Albus and Grindelwald had this very intense relationship in their late teens, early 20s, that for some reason ended badly,” Law says cryptically. “And now Albus is reeling from it, to the point that he finds himself directly opposing him.”
Could it be that the pair’s bond extends even deeper than a blood pact glimpsed in flashback — something more explicitly in keeping with diversity-championing Rowling’s 2007 reveal that she imagines Dumbledore as being gay? Apparently, time — and those planned third, fourth, and fifth “Fantastic Beasts” films — will tell. “Obviously, I’m aware of a little more of what happens, because I’ve talked about it” with Rowling, Law says. “But what’s revealed in this chapter is [the extent of] what was written in the script.”
Meanwhile, the first movie’s B-story meet-cuties, New Yawk “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and bubbly mind-reader Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), are back, but this time their taboo mixed relationship frequently takes center stage, and some startling turns. Impressive stuff, especially given that the movie also covers Newt and Tina’s accidental estrangement, as well as the uncomfortable triangle existing among Newt, bureaucratic big bro Theseus (Callum Turner), and Zoe Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange.
“Queenie is blinded by love, and she makes some rash decisions to get Jacob to Europe so that they can be [legally] married,” Fogler says in a phone interview. “But he wants to protect them by keeping their secret, which is operating out of love, too. So there are all these very complex relationship themes that are really fun to play.”
Part of the fun, you’d be correct to guess, was the novelty this held for Fogler. “Yeah, I don’t get to play the romantic lead a lot,” he says, laughingly conceding that some flirting in the Ping-Pong comedy “Balls of Fury” wasn’t quite the same thing. “But something J.K. said to me during the first rehearsal we had was that, in her mind, Jacob and Ron Weasley are similar. I thought, what a great direction! Ron gets to play the romantic guy who gets Hermione, but he’s also the sidekick and the clown. That was really helpful as an anchor.”
For Law, the artistic mandate was all about legacy: to deliver a performance that was consistent with Richard Harris’s and Michael Gambon’s interpretations of Dumbledore, but also something fresher than simple mimicry. “I went back and watched their performances, obviously,” he says. “The character is so beloved, I recognized the responsibility to get it right.
“But the Dumbledore of the ‘Potter’ series was in his hundreds,” Law continues. “This is a man in his 40s, with all of the unresolved issues and turmoil and matters of the heart that a middle-aged man might have. He has yet to reach the state of serenity that Gambon and Harris had, which gave me some freedom.”
This new Dumbledore maintained his perspective even during the production’s return to the character’s old stomping grounds, Hogwarts. (While the venerable magic school’s interior sets had to be rebuilt or digitally recreated, exteriors were again filmed at England’s eight-century-old Lacock Abbey.) “I’ll be honest, the excitement didn’t fully hit me until later,” Law says. “When you’re there on the day, you’re just concentrating on the job at hand. It wasn’t until I saw the final piece, with all the post-production magic put into it, that I really got a sense of being part of this vast, extraordinary vision.”
It’s also a rather dark vision this time around. If Dumbledore has always been reminiscent of tolerance-preaching “X-Men” mentor Charles Xavier, then Grindelwald is his militant, disciple-recruiting Magneto – and genre fans know well the character divisions that have resulted from that particular allegorical dynamic. (“I don’t do sides,” Newt pointedly says in one early scene – but we know that can’t last.) The film’s intensity and some bona-fide narrative bombshells make “The Empire Strikes Back” another comp, offers Fogler. “The bad guys level the playing field, you know?”
All of which could be just the thing to help Law achieve the effect that he, personally, is after, the imprint he hopes to have made on Dumbledore’s iconography when the “Fantastic Beasts” saga is all said and done. “Even though Harris and Gambon both have a serenity, a wisdom, and a mischievousness, they also have a sadness to them,” Law observes.
“I’d really like to honor that sadness,” he says. “And explain it.”Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.