J.K. Rowling adds some Harry Potter luster to her magical-creature franchise in a sequel starring Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp as dueling wizards.
Eddie Redmayne’s shy, diffident character Newt Scamander — the Magizoologist with a menagerie of comically odd creatures in his suitcase — is no Harry Potter, at least not yet. But Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second in the projected five-movie franchise written by J.K. Rowling, displays enough of the author’s magical formula and Dickensian narrative power to make this sequel a huge step up from the middling Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). The sequel has better and at times galvanizing special effects, a darker tone and a high-stakes battle between good and evil. Best of all, its characters are more vibrantly drawn, and tangled in relationships that range from delightful to lethal.
Crimes of Grindelwald also has some serious liabilities, the gravest being a misbegotten performance by Johnny Depp as the villain of the title. But unlike the first installment, which felt like a strained effort to extend Rowling’s brand, this engaging film has a busy, kinetic style of its own.
The story picks up in 1927, six months after the first film ends. The New York authorities governing magic have locked up the shape-shifting Grindelwald, a Nazi avatar who wants pure-blood wizards — no mixed-bloods allowed — to rule over humans. A set piece early in the film signals how much action and darkness are ahead. Grindelwald escapes prison and flies through the night sky like an evil Santa, driving a carriage drawn by Thestrals, the black, winged dragonlike creatures familiar from the Potter world. One key to the sequel’s appeal is that it is closer to and occasionally actually enters Potter territory.
As Newt, back in London, tries to stop Grindelwald from taking over the world, he encounters a colorful gallery of sidekicks, villains and family members. His brother, Theseus (Calum Turner), is inconveniently engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), once Newt’s girlfriend, as we see in flashbacks to their adolescence at Hogwarts.
In the most tantalizing sequence, on a bridge in the London fog, Newt meets with his former teacher, Albus Dumbledore, played to perfection by Jude Law. In early middle age, this Dumbledore is tweedy, super-smart and kind, his eyes suggesting the many secrets he is guarding. Wisely, Law doesn’t try to channel Michael Gambon or Richard Harris, who have played the aged Dumbledore. Instead, he gives the character the calm, warmth and understanding that has made him such a beloved figure. Law’s role here is relatively small, but his scenes are highlights of the film, and effectively set up bigger things to come.
Dumbledore asks Newt to do what, for mysterious reasons, Dumbledore himself cannot: Go to Paris to capture Grindelwald. Instead, Newt returns to an apartment that is very much like his suitcase. Inside, it expands to include a zoo and even an entry to the open sea. For a high-tech film, the beasts can seem defiantly low-tech. A fierce, lionlike Zouwu with a long, red, feathery tail looks like a puppet at a Chinese New Year’s parade. But in its best moments, the film gives the creatures personalities and uses the beasts to enhance the story instead of just turning up and looking weird. The loyal, green mantislike Pickett still lives in Newt’s jacket pocket. The cute ducklike Niffler, who pilfers shiny objects, contributes an important theft to the plot.
Newt has never been the most charismatic guy onscreen. Redmayne still tucks in his chin and peers out from under the lock of hair that is perpetually falling over his forehead. He dials down the coy look this time, but for most of the film, we have to take Dumbledore’s word for it when he says Newt is a powerful, talented wizard. That the pic remains enticing despite its evolving, still-pallid hero speaks to Rowling’s storytelling strengths. David Yates, who also directed the first Fantastic Beasts and four of the Potter movies, brings his fast-paced efficiency to this one, which at various points soars up on rooftops, through a street circus or into a dark cemetery.
What lures Newt to Paris is the prospect of finding Tina (Katherine Waterston), the investigator of dark wizards whom he left behind in New York. She is searching for Credence Barebone (played again by Ezra Miller with a one-note glare), who unleashed destruction on Manhattan last time around, and who is torn between good and evil. Waterston isn’t asked to do much more than walk through this movie, but Newt’s other sidekicks are spirited enough to offset that. Newt’s friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), the down-to-earth nonmagical baker, adds a gleeful, odd-couple, buddy-movie thread to the film. Jacob is in love with Tina’s glamorous sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol as the wide-eyed epitome of a 1920s flapper.
One of the curious, uninviting choices in the Beasts franchise is its grayish-brown palette, and a flattened, backlot, old-fashioned storybook look. Even fake-Paris looks grim. It’s a relief when the pic briefly sets down in the lush green landscape around Hogwarts to visit Dumbledore once more.
When the special effects take off, though, the images can be spectacular. In the climactic battle between good and evil, Grindelwald unleashes swirls of icy-blue fire, which take over the screen.
Ah, Grindelwald. As a villain, he had so much potential. His mismatched eyes have one brown and one white iris, and his soul is as cold as his yellow-white hair and pallor. He gathers his supporters at a rally that is both historical in its overt references to Nazism and eerily topical today.
Yet Depp grandstands in one more gimmicky, costume-driven performance, with one more plummy accent. That routine grew tiresome many movies ago. Thankfully, the actor has limited time onscreen here. (Yates and Rowling have defended his casting in the wake of domestic abuse allegations, which Depp has denied; completely apart from that, he is no help to this film.)
As one secret is revealed, other mysteries pile up. Credence discovers the truth about his lineage, a revelation that may make you think, “Huh? They are from the same family?” But this new, improved sequel suggests that even when Rowling seems to have gone astray, before long she knows just what she’s doing.
Production companies: Heyday Films, Warner Bros.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling
Producer: David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram, J.K. Rowling
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Mark Day
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Fiona Weir
Rated PG-13, 134 minutes