Beasts? Yes, lots of ’em. Fantastic? Some of the time.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is much better than its predecessor in this Harry Potter-adjacent franchise, if only because it’s a whole movie.
Yes, it ends with a cliffhanger that presages the next movie’s big conflict. But, whereas “Fantastic Beasts” felt like we’d been given the beginning of a movie that just stopped in mid-scene, “Grindelwald” has a satisfying story arc, while also building interest in a couple of promising romances and giving us stunning looks at both the vertiginous edge of the White Cliffs of Dover and Paris circa 1927, when the Eiffel Tower was still in its gleaming youth.
Most of the action takes place in the City of Lights, where magicians and wizards assemble in pursuit of nasty necromancer Gellert Grindelwald. He’s played by Johnny Depp, who doesn’t deviate much from the sociopathic gigolo performance that seems to have become his specialty and who, oddly, has been made up and coifed to look like Brigitte Nielsen.
The overpopulated “FB” franchise still lacks a dominant character, but the Scoobies are led by charming will-they-or-won’t-theys Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and, once they reach Paris, the beast-on-beast CGI violence is impressive.
With a Weimar Republic-style rally and black eagle-esque imagery, “Grindelwald” also takes a stab at relevancy by suggesting parallels to the rise of Nazis in Europe, an intriguing notion that likely will pay off in the next installment.
Here, we’re more concerned with the numerous characters choosing up sides for what presumably will be the ultimate Good vs. Evil fight in the next film, with Albus Dumbledore as point guard of the former team and Grindelwald dishing the assists for the latter. (There is more than a little “X-Men” DNA in “Beasts,” except that we always knew what the X-Men’s powers were and we never get specifics about that in “FB.”)
Speaking of Dumbledore, he’s by far the most satisfying element of this film. Wittily played by Jude Law as a youngish version of the wizened wizard Richard Harris and Michael Gambon played in the “Potter” movies, we get to see Dumbledore in action at Hogwarts, tutoring young students, hinting at his buried sexuality and interacting with colleagues (get ready for whoops of delight when audiences realize they’re seeing the young version of Minerva McGonagall, who’s been played by Maggie Smith elsewhere in the Potterverse).
It’s a kick to see the Hogwarts uniforms and hallways again, even if most of the best-loved characters are missing/unborn at this point. Those thrilling glimpses back into a world we already know underscore both a strength and a weakness of the movie: It has an almost universally beloved back story to rely on, but the newer stuff is nowhere near as interesting.
Two movies into J.K. Rowling’s newish franchise, it has become clear that the closer “Fantastic Beasts” gets to Harry Potter, the better it is.