Zoë Kravitz’s (“Rough Night”) character in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Leta Lestrange, tells the franchise’s bashful hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”), “You never met a monster you couldn’t love.” The line is actually quite interchangeable with the film itself. While the narrative is somewhat of a slog, there is just enough magic, 1920s set pieces and Hogwarts tracking shots to find affection for.
Again, this “prequel-sequel” is by no means a perfect film. Yet it offers fine performances from an increasing number of A-listers and plenty of fiery spells cast from the wands of likable characters — from the returning New York gang to “newcomer” Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”). Like many of its genre, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is moderately flawed — from some of its visuals and force-fed emotion to its linkage to J.K. Rowling’s earth-shattering eight-part “Harry Potter” franchise. Perhaps its biggest slip-up is in Rowling’s screenplay, which is at times convoluted and engaged in staging, as it overtly sets its sights on the next three films.
This second installment, following “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” picks up in 1927 and finds the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, “Murder on the Orient Express”), being transported from the Magical Congress of the United States’ (MACUSA) New York office to London, where he is to answer for his crimes abroad. However, Grindelwald quickly escapes, slipping away to recruit pure-blood wizards for an overthrow of the world order. Grindelwald wants to seize power from the ruling Muggles in order to return it to the “superior” wizard class.
Only two obstacles stand in his way: Newt Scamander, the reluctant hero and go-to problem solver for the British Ministry of Magic, and Albus Dumbledore, who at this time in his life is an admired Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts. Dumbledore is Grindelwald’s only wizarding equal, but the two are bound to one another by their shared past. Thus, Dumbledore calls on his ally, Newt, to help him.
The mission to stop Grindelwald takes Newt to Paris to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, “Justice League”), the downtrodden holder of the Obscurus parasite that Grindelwald pines for. Also on the case: Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, “Alien: Covenant”), Newt’s love interest and now an enterprising Auror (wizard tracker) for MACUSA. Trailing her in Europe is her vivacious younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, “Between Us”) and the Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, “Take Me Home Tonight”). The gang must team up to investigate this Grindelwald cult, and they’ll need all the help they can get before the turmoil threatens lasting peace with the Muggles.
To one of the latter points, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald does get lost in itself for a time, dishing out expository scenes and flashbacks that connect the dots — quite literally — thanks to Lestrange’s family tree. Further, while character-driven moments typically augment films of this sort, this follow-up gets murky, as secondary characters become crucial to the plot and the narrative gets intricately braided. Emerging and important characters here include Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner, “Victor Frankenstein”), a British Auror and Lestrange’s fiancé, plus a revenge-seeking wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam, “The Absence”) who can’t quite make it past the periphery.
While this complicated character map speaks volumes about the nature of the David Yates-helmed project (he is also the director of four “Harry Potter” films and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), the frames come to life thanks to Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography, delivering an atmosphere that the Wizarding World demands. What’s more, as Rowling’s screenplay kicks into high gear, Yates works off of it well, with a nicely executed third-act upheaval. Also, luckily for Yates, Redmayne, Waterston, Depp and Law all deliver strong performances, keeping the whole film in check.
Suffice to say, quibbles aside, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is certainly a watchable film (once the Lestranges, Kamas, Scamanders and Goldsteins are sorted out) and something that’s sure to please dedicated fans of the Wizarding World (with plenty of Easter eggs, too). Nevertheless, do not expect anything groundbreaking, as many of the elements are familiar, if not formulaic. Still, it might be that beast you can’t help but love or at least like a lot, depending on how strong your connection to the mythos dreamed up by Rowling is.