Paris in the Zing Time
Ah, the nights are drawing in, there is a crispness to the air, and somewhere in the distance I can hear the sound of a safe pair of hands printing money. It must be time for another pre-Christmas brand extension for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, aka The Conjuring Cash-Cow of J.K. Rowling. This time around it's Fabulous Pests: The Grimy Gimblebonk, directed, almost inevitably, by David Yates [note to self: don't forget to check movie name is spelt right before submitting review]. Oddly enough, when I asked for a ticket for Fabulous Pests 2 at the sweetshop which masquerades as the larger local branch of the Odeon, the minion looked at me blankly before giving me a ticket for Bohemian Rhapsody. and I had a tricky time with some irritated Queen fans for a bit. Cinema staff these days, eh? Tch.
Here is what I was able to make out with regard to the plot, which is (of course) the work of J.K. Rowling, a woman whose vocabulary seems to include many Latin words but not the ones 'restraint' or 'self-edit': having been forced to abandon his Colin Farrell disguise at the end of the previous film, evil wizard Gimblebonk (Johnny Depp, who is both unexpectedly restrained and not especially grimy) busts out of magical prison and sets about his dastardly plan. Exactly what this is would constitute a spoiler if I had any idea what it was, but it appears to involve doing something absolutely ghastly in one of the three (yup, three) further films we can expect in this part of the franchise.
It all revolves around a lad named Credence (Ezra Miller), who has an obscure but significant pedigree. He was actually believed dead at the end of the previous outing, but there has been a Credence revival in the mean time [note to self – think of a way to cram the words 'clear water' into that last sentence or the joke falls a bit flat]. Now he is searching for his origins and nearly everyone else is searching for him.
As well as the minions of the malevolent Gimblebonk, the lad is being looked for by Newt Scamperer (Eddie Redmayne), who as before is basically a cross between Tristan Farnon, Ged the Archmage, and Rain Man [some of the cultural references perhaps a bit obscure there? Hmmm]. He is doing this not because he is working as the agent of celebrated wizard and teacher Waldo Dimbledink (Jude Law), but because a girl he has a bit of a pash for (Katherine Waterston) is also on the case.
So off they all go to Paris, eventually, and soon the air is zinging with magic spells and extravagant sorcery in the way that only a $200 million budget can enable. Numerous subplots intertwine, supposedly adorable CGI beasties crawl, flutter, and bound about the place, and various secrets are revealed – although what was really going on in the shared past of Gimblebonk and Dimbledink is not much more than alluded to, presumably so real-world bigots won't complain about the depiction of made-up ones.
It is quite easy to be glib and cynical about this particular franchise, as you can perhaps tell. No doubt the producers would respond to this sort of killjoyism by pointing to the $814 million made by the previous film, which certainly suggests that there is still a demand for stories set in this particular fictional universe, but I wonder – certainly, I know some people have given Grimy Gimblebonk as rapturous a reception as anyone could hope for ('absolutely brilliant' was the considered opinion of one maths professor of my acquaintance), but the two Potterheads I share an office with were much less impressed.
This is probably rather ironic, as you really do need to be one of the faithful to follow all the ins and outs of this film. I've read all the Harry Potter books, as well as seeing the movies, and I saw the previous Pests film too (although that was a couple of years ago). But while I was still able to follow the general movement of this particular story without too much difficulty, I think it does demand too much from casual viewers – it makes a certain sort of sense that one character is apparently known as an Obscurial or an Obscurus, because exactly what all of it means is far from completely clear. Someone may or may not be related to someone else, this character may have a secret past with that one, and in the end it turns out that someone is the long-lost relative of somebody else. The irony comes from the fact that some of these revelations, specifically the ones tying the film in to the (chronologically later) Harry Potter stories, have been met with bared fangs by the staunchest Potterheads, as J.K. appears to be rewriting the continuity of her own universe, something they feel she is not allowed to do (and let's not even get into the fuss arising from her attempt to fill-in the back-story of Lord Voldemort's pet snake).
The problem is that, if you're not a Rowling superfan, not much of the story here really feels like it matters – there's a lot of imagination on display here, both in the tale and its telling, and the film is always visually polished and frequently quite well-played (Jude Law is particularly good). But it does often feel like you're peering into a private world, without ever being told why you should actually care about it.
There's also the problem that, for a film concerning itself with (all right, all right) the crimes of Johnny Depp's character, he doesn't really do very much in this film beyond lurk about menacingly and occasionally make a speech: this film is clearly largely an exercise in setting up future episodes. It is actually slightly annoying, then, to have to report that those films show potential to be distinctly interesting. J.K. Rowling's liberal credentials are well known (though she's clearly not progressive enough for some of her more rabid fans), and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between her villain here – he's not so much a magical realist as a magical populist, intent on whipping up his followers with an ideology based on fear and division – and certain present-day real-world figures. But more interesting still is a moment in which some of the darkness and horror of the real world breaks through into what often still feels like a quaint and whimsical setting, the children's-book origins of which remain obvious – the characters get a vision of what awaits the world in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the implication is that future films will deal with this in more detail.
Nevertheless, part of me remains fairly certain that the perceived need to make these films as bland as possible for box-office purposes (rumour has it that J.K. is down to her last £600 million) will triumph, and the future instalments will end up as aesthetically pleasing but dramatically inert as this one. This is not a bad film, in many ways: it has a lot of imagination and is never actually dull to watch. However, it seems calculated to either bemuse or annoy the vast majority of audiences, in part because it spends too much time complicating its story, but not nearly enough explaining why anyone should care about it.