From J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, 1997’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” through eight movie adaptations, the Harry Potter franchise has captured the imagination of both kids and adults. Since it was such a cash cow, Warner Bros. wanted to keep milking it even after all the books had been adapted. So, Rowling used her faux 2001 textbook, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” as inspiration for a new five part series. The initial entry, released two years ago and set about seven decades before Harry Potter, was a reasonably fun world builder that worked on its own while also setting things up for the sequels. The first of those, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, is much more plot heavy than its predecessor, as well as darker. The magic does occasionally come alive, even if the story being told feels unnecessary.
Evil wizard Grindelwald, who was captured at the end of the last movie, has escaped. Magizooligist Newt Scamander, banned f rom leaving London due to his adventures in New York in Where to Find Them, is recruited by Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore to secretly go to Paris and foil Grindelwald’s plans. There is a lot more going on than that, including Newt trying to rekindle his relationship with Ministry of Magic Auror Tina, his complex relationship with his brother and orphan Credence’s search for his birthmother. The filmmakers do not really attempt to catch viewers up, so if you missed the first one, none of this will make sense.
That movie leaned heavily on the beasts Newt was trying to locate in New York. Their designs were creative and it was fun to watch them interact with the city. This time around, there are a couple of cool new creatures, but they are mostly sidelined by the focus on the mythology of this expanded universe. Because they are setting things up for a likely action-packed third installment, there is a lot more plot in Crimes of Grindelwald. It is an understandable tradeoff, however it takes away from what made it a little different and instead turns it into Harry Potter-lite.
While I found it to be generally enjoyable, I could not shake the feeling that Rowling cribbed from herself when devising this story. Grindelwald is clearly a precursor to Voldemort. He has a similar desire to “protect” pure-blood magicians and all of the same fascist overtones. Credence is the surrogate for Harry, a young man struggling with his identity, who is used as a pawn in the battle between good and evil. There are also familiar bits about the Ministry of Magic being more of a hindrance than a help, right down to their differences of opinion with Albus Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law, who has the playful energy and air of someone who knows exactly what you are going to do before you do it; unfortunately, he is not given the opportunity to do much with it). Perhaps the idea is history repeated itself (this is a prequel, after all). But it feels more derivative than clever.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (125 minutes, without the end credits) suffers from a lot of the problems of being the second part of a planned pentalogy as well as those of a prequel. It is a bunch of setup with all of the payoff presumably coming further down the line. It does not end so much as pause for two years. Additionally, the stuff that drew fans to this world in the first place do not show up for another seventy years.
That said, there are definitely enough things to like. It is nice to look at, Newt Scamander (charmingly played by Eddie Redmayne) is an endearing protagonist and there are some exciting action scenes. I am concerned this franchise is about to be milked completely dry, but Warner is going to keep it going anyway. That is a future problem. In the meantime, Crimes of Grindelwald is a pleasant, if forgettable, family adventure that did make me curious to see how they will wrap up this particular story in a way that ties in to the Harry Potter series.
3¼ out of 5
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander
Johnny Depp as Grindelwald
Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore
Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski
Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein
Callum Turner as Theseus Scamander
Zoë Kravitz as Leta Lestrange
Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone
Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein
Claudia Kim as Nagini
William Nadylam as Yusuf Kama
Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling