Movie review: 'Fantastic Beasts' sequel enchants, but conjures too many plot strands

  • Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) tries to avoid taking sides in his changing magical world in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."

    Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) tries to avoid taking sides in his changing magical world in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." Courtesy of Warner Bros.

 
By Jake Coyle
Associated Press
Updated 11/15/2018 12:35 PM

"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" -- ★ ★

Like the bottomless trunk totted by "magizoolologist" Newt Scamander, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a mixed bag of wonders.

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Newt (Eddie Redmayne) can reach into his suitcase and pull out just about anything. And it sometimes feels as if J.K. Rowling -- a screenwriter here for the second time -- is similarly infatuated by her unending powers of conjuring. In this overstuffed second film in the five-part Harry Potter prequel series, every solved mystery unlocks another, every story begets still more. Narratives multiply like randy Nifflers (one of the many species of creatures in Newt's bag).

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) poses a growing threat in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."
Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) poses a growing threat in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." - Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The usual problem for spinoffs is their thinness or their unfulfilled justification -- especially ones that stretch an already much-stretched tale. But neither are issues in the two "Fantastic Beasts" films, each directed by former "Potter" hand David Yates. Both movies are rooted in purpose. "The Crimes of Grindelwald," especially, is an impressively dark and urgent parable of supremacist ideology aimed squarely at today's demagogues of division. And neither film lacks in density of detail, character or story.

No, the only real crime of "Grindelwald" is its sheer abundance. In zipping from New York to London to Paris, this latest chapter in Rowling's pre-Potter saga feels so eager to be outside Hogwarts (which also gets a cameo) that it resists ever settling anywhere, or with any of its widely scattered characters -- among them Newt, the conscientious dark magic investigator Tina (Katherine Waterston), the New Yorker no-maj Jacob (Dan Fogler), Tina's sister and Jacob's sweetheart Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Newt's haunted former schoolmate Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) makes an appearance in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."
A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) makes an appearance in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." - Courtesy of Warner Bros.

No one does the foreboding sense of a looming battle better than Rowling. Now, it's the rise of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), freshly escaped from prison, who casts a lengthening shadow over the land. With a blond shock of hair and a ghostly white face, Grindelwald is Rowling's magical version of a white nationalist, only he believes in the elevation of wizards -- "purebloods" -- over those who lack magical powers, or "no-majes."

It's 1927 and the dark clouds of fascism are swirling; World War II feels right around the corner. In one the movie's many tricks, Grindelwald drapes Paris in black fabric, like a wannabe Christo.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), left, teams up with his brother (Callum Turner) in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), left, teams up with his brother (Callum Turner) in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." - Courtesy of Warner Bros.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Despite the gathering storm, the pacifist Newt (Redmayne, cloyingly shy), resists drawing battle lines. When pushed by his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who like Tina is an "Auror" who enforces magic law, Newt responds: "I don't do sides."

The events of "The Crimes of Grindelwald" will test Newt, just as they will anyone trying to follow its many strands. The hunt is on for at least three characters -- the missing Queenie, the on-the-lam Grindelwald and Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the powerful but volatile orphan who spends much of the film seeking answers to his identity. He's the Anakin Skywalker of "Fantastic Beasts," whose soul is fought for by both sides.

Jacob (Dan Fogler), left, and Tina (Katherine Waterston) return to face new threats in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."
Jacob (Dan Fogler), left, and Tina (Katherine Waterston) return to face new threats in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." - Courtesy of Warner Bros.

If all of this sounds like a lot, it most definitely is, and that's not even mentioning Jude Law joining in as a young Albus Dumbledore. But our time here with him is short, just as it is with so many characters who -- to the film's credit -- we yearn for more of (Fogler's Jacob, especially).

Siblings are everywhere in "The Crimes of Grindelwald." Rowling delights in duality and the interplay of light and dark. Even within the Aurors there are competing methodologies of law enforcement to face the growing threat. Newt is carried along like an avatar of sympathy: he believes that every beast can be tamed, that every trauma can be healed.

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) poses a growing threat in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."
Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) poses a growing threat in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." - Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Rowling's only source material going into the "Fantastic Beasts" films was a slender 2001 book in the guise of a Hogwarts textbook. But she has, with her mighty wand, summoned an impressively vast if convoluted world, one that's never timid in exploring the darkness beneath its enchanting exterior. And, with Yates again at the helm, "The Crimes of Grindelwald" is often dazzling, occasionally wondrous and always atmospheric. But it is also a bit of a mess. Even magic bags can be overweight.

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Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Alison Sudol

Directed by: David Yates

Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence. 134 minutes

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