'Fantastic Beasts' plunges deeper into pre-Harry Potter world

More workmanlike than magical, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" nevertheless feels like an upgr...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 4:56 AM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 4:56 AM

More workmanlike than magical, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" nevertheless feels like an upgrade from its predecessor, one that adds star power, introduces key characters and lays the foundation for a genuine "Wizarding World" franchise. To call J.K. Rowling's mythology-heavy plot dense would be an understatement, but the film has enough epic heft to feel like a genuine blockbuster.

Rowling reunites with David Yates, the director of four "Harry Potter" movies, as well as "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." The marquee additions, meanwhile, including a toothy role for Johnny Depp (after what amounted to a fleeting cameo) and the introduction of Jude Law as a younger Albus Dumbledore, which, along with some other familiar names, moves this brand expansion closer to the realm of "Star Wars" prequels.

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As for Eddie Redmayne, the ostensible star as the halting, vulnerable, love-struck Newt Scamander, his role recedes a bit, partly overwhelmed by the swirl of characters around him and the need for long expository passages, which practically require a scorecard.

To briefly recap, "Fantastic Beasts" ended with the evil, dangerous Grindelwald not only captured but revealed to be Depp, whetting appetites for the sequel to come. Not to disappoint, the movie opens with a spectacular escape sequence, as the American Ministry of Magic proves itself to be pretty incompetent (insert your own joke here) in the prisoner-transfer department.

Having Grindelwald on the loose presents a challenge for Newt, who is caught up in the world of wizardly politics, a complicated web to say the least. He's prodded by Dumbledore to pursue the fugitive, leading him, his muggle pal Jacob (Dan Fogler) and the Ministry of Magic's Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) on a hell-bent chase across Paris in the 1920s.

That basic template barely scratches the surface of all that's going on, with enough flashbacks, name-checks and key secondary players -- including Ezra Miller as Credence, the mysterious linchpin of Grindelwald's master plan; and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt's childhood love, now destined to wed his brother -- adding layers of intrigue.

Depp gives the movie a villain of a greater magnitude, particularly in a closing sequence where he reveals what motivates him. While Dumbledore isn't around that much, as played by Law he's as enigmatic as ever, strengthening the link to Potter lore, especially for the rules-of-Quidditch-conversant who eat up every reference to it.

Rowling's script periodically screeches to a halt to putty in those storylines, a tactic perhaps more conducive to novels than movies. Still, "Fantastic Beasts" doesn't scrimp on the action, with enough battles, chases and imaginative production design and creatures -- augmented by a particularly good James Newton Howard score -- to occupy those Muggles who mostly just like to see stuff blow up.

Like the Harry Potter franchise, which built in ambition and intensity while piling on British talent as the central trio aged, "Fantastic Beasts" is settling in for a long ride, with three more movies announced through 2024.

It's pretty clear that run will be profitable for Warner Bros. (like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia). To the extent "The Crimes of Grindelwald" displays more franchise-driven efficiency than spark, it's best viewed less as a stand-alone film than a carefully orchestrated step into the larger pre-Harry world.

"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" opens Nov. 16 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.

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