The richly imagined but exhausting Harry Potter cinematic cycle came to an apparent end in 2011. It wasn’t clear at that time where else J.K. Rowling could take her universe of wizards and witches living in a parallel world to that of non-magical Muggles. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them provided a surprising answer: Instead of following the further adventures of Harry himself—a job that appears to have been taken on by the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—Rowling left her hero behind entirely. Taking a character like Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), whose only reference in the original series was as the author of a Hogwarts textbook, and tossing him into the hurly-burly of 1920s New York—far from the Oxbridge magicking of Olde England—augured a fresh new start for the franchise.
The fun but more predictable Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald moves the new series forward, but only incrementally—all the better to maximize the potential for six or seven more sequels to be strung out for Thanksgivings to come. The action picks up in 1927 New York, where a contingent of American wizards are transporting Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to France for trial. As happens in just about every film involving a prisoner transfer, Grindelwald escapes, but unlike all such films, the escape involves a black carriage pulled through the sky by dragon-like winged creatures and a magic battle raging high over New York in a lightning storm.
After that, the race is on for the good wizards to stop Grindelwald and his Voldemort-like genocidal campaign for a wizard-dominated future. Or it would be, if the various ministries of magic weren’t bickering in Neville Chamberlain fashion while the threat grows. As before, Newt is the unlikely hero. A gangly, ginger-haired, slightly dizzy magizoologist (basically a zoologist for magical entities) with a crookedly gentle smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he’s dispatched to Paris by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and accompanied by Jacob (Dan Fogler), the Noo Yawker assigned two duties by Rowling’s somewhat dashed-off script: comic relief and gawping wide-eyed at the various magicking and otherworldly beasties Newt is always playing with.
Tina (Katherine Waterston), the American auror—a kind of wizarding enforcer—whose awkward romance with Newt is one of the film’s most appealing elements, pops up as well but in a frustratingly limited way. Intended as another trio in the Harry, Hermione, and Ron mold, Newt, Jacob, and Tina are barely given enough time to develop as worthy characters before they’re off and running toward or away from various dangers. The Crimes of Grindelwald gets more comedic and emotional mileage, in fact, out of Newt’s interactions with his various creatures, particularly the adorable platypus-like one with a nose for gold, than most of its human-centered scenes.
The chase narrative takes numerous detours so that director David Yates can stage a number of slam-bang set pieces in the streets of Paris, including an especially beautiful and chaotic one in which Newt tames a massive Chinese dragon-like creature escaped from a sideshow—which raises the question of why would wizards need circuses if they can magic up just about any wonder they can imagine? The story also expends far too much energy tracking down the tangled dynastic history of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the prior film’s seething embodiment of rage, and just one of many characters waiting to be seduced by Grindelwald’s authoritarian appeal.
The story being set in 1927, Rowling doesn’t skimp on the fascist overtones. When Grindelwald holds a rally, he sugarcoats his annihilationist message in dog-whistle appeals to pride in a hall decked out in quasi-Nuremberg fashion. He even orchestrates a Reichstag fire-style outrage in order to galvanize his followers. Whether or not the war between his somewhat generic brand of villainy and the ragtag opposition will be enough to sustain this series through its many sequels remains to be seen.