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Dustin Putman

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald  (2018)
2½ Stars
Directed by David Yates.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Carmen Ejogo, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Kevin Guthrie, Fiona Glascott, Jamie Campbell Bower.
2018 – 134 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, November 14, 2018.
If 2016's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was laid-back and affable, a dip of the toe into a planned five-part prequel set within author J.K. Rowling's world of witchcraft and wizardry, second installment "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" ups the stakes and further expands its globe-trotting mythos. With multiple visits to Hogwarts, flashbacks to introverted yet faithful wizard Newt Scamander's (Eddie Redmayne) formative days at the school, and the crucial incorporation of future headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) into the plot, the film—more so than its predecessor—is a sentimental return to the spirit of the eight-picture "Harry Potter" series. It also, for that matter, feels like exactly what it is: an enticing but sometimes cumbersome narrative bridge that will hopefully make better sense and prove more satisfying once the scope of its overall story arc is revealed.

When dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes captivity from the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), the London-based Newt is contacted by Professor Dumbledore with a pressing task: travel to Paris and attempt to thwart Grindelwald's plans of overtaking the No-Maj population with pure-blood witches and wizards. As Grindelwald sets about building his army of followers, Newt reunites with MACUSA officer/auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Queenie's forbidden No-Maj boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). With the foursome split apart and allegiances threatened, Newt and Tina vow to track down dangerously powerful obscurus Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a young man desperately searching for his real parents. If Grindelwald gets to Credence first, their combined forces could prove catastrophic for the world at large.

"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a comforting return to a well-established milieu, and director David Yates (who previously helmed "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," as well as 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows Part 1," and 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows Part 2") continues to find inspiring ways to portray an alternate 1927 reality where Majes and Muggles do not always comfortably coexist. There is no doubt screenwriter J.K. Rowling is leading somewhere purposeful, but, without direct source material to prove it, the viewer must this time trust in the thus far promising but bumpy journey. Exposition comes fast and furious; indeed, there are so many names, events and technical terms thrown at the audience even the most fervent Rowling fans might find it a struggle to follow everything. By the end, there is also a suggestion of history being contradicted, so it will be interesting to see how this eleventh-hour twist is handled in future pictures.

As unwieldy as the film occasionally is, it is easy to get lost in the alluring spell of what's onscreen. Grindelwald's pre-title getaway kicks things off with a brooding, rainswept bang set across the night skies of Manhattan, and in another memorable moment, a billowing malevolent force ominously wraps itself like sheaths across Paris. The early entrance of the much-loved Albus Dumbledore is more than welcome. Dumbledore's connection to Grindelwald runs deep—when someone describes their teenage friendship as being "like brothers," he is quick to correct that they were more than simply brothers—and there is just enough here to yearn for more insight into their bittersweet past. Jude Law (2015's "Spy") captures the warmth and command of Dumbledore even if he bears very little physical resemblance to Michael Gambon's portrayal of the older, more stately wizard. Best of all is the climactic showdown at Grindelwald's corrupt meeting of followers. It is appropriately foreboding and tense, yes, but also provocative in its depiction of cult-like manipulation and loves torturously torn asunder.

The main cast (and the characters they are playing) remain a mixed bag. Eddie Redmayne (2015's "Jupiter Ascending") exhibits an overwhelming sense of being unsure of himself as Newt Scamander, and while this seems to be an intentional choice it makes it difficult to warm up to him. As would-be love interest Porpentina, Katherine Waterston (2017's "Alien: Covenant") is left adrift, underused as she keeps herself at emotional arm's length from Newt based on a misunderstanding involving his ex-girlfriend Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz). More successful are Dan Fogler (2018's "Becks") and Alison Sudol, irresistible and touching as Jacob and Queenie, whose troubled star-crossed romance leads them down unexpected paths. And, as Grindelwald, Johnny Depp (2017's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales") brings an aura of haunted treacherousness to his villainy.

When "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" comes to its cliffhanging close, the urgent consequences of what has happened and what is about to be unleashed leave one wanting more right away. This, ultimately, is a sure sign of a middle chapter that has done its job. Much like the films centering around Harry, Ron and Hermione, this spin-off series is destined to grow ever darker before it reaches the light, its initial low-key charms building in complexity as the characters, too, face tribulations the likes of which they've never before seen. "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" could use a little less whiplash-inducing wordiness as Rowling strives to cover a lot of territory, but the ambition, skill, and immersive wonder of the landscape she's built continues to bewitch.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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