Two years later and it’s clear that J.K. Rowling has had more than fuzzy, enchanted animals on her mind. In 2016, Rowling and David Yates’ Harry Potter prequel screened on the eve of the U.S. presidential election and appeared to be a film divided by itself: is it a whimsical adventure about fantastic beasts and those who find them or a stark prelude to another fable about the rise of fascism? In the time since then, it’s clear who won, in more ways than one, while watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
A stark and sometimes disturbingly dark follow-up to what came before, the second chapter of Newt Scamander’s Jazz Age adventures is leaner and more straightforward. Yet it paradoxically has much more on its mind. To be sure, there’s wizarding wonderment, more suspense than before, and even a few sequences of genuine magic in this finely tuned reaction to the first film’s critics. However, it is also ever so entrenched in the themes that have always driven J.K. Rowling’s darker passions, and now with a heightened urgency since the kind of dark arts she’s warned against have become more pronounced, both on the screen and off. For proof of that back-and-forth dialgoue, one need only consider the titular villain’s grand scheme: to hold a rally and create an enemy.
Set a fair amount of time after Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends, the picture opens with a rollicking, albeit perfunctory, escape sequence for Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the the demagogue with a German name to accompany his blonde hair, blue heterochromiaed eye, and wispy moustache. The escape from American wizards’ custody is the first of several requisite CGI-heavy moments, but its implications are not. If you do not recall, in the last film Grindelwald secretly sought Credence (Ezra Miller), a young man who’d been raised in a fanatical family, thus repressing his magical abilities to a dangerous extent. The Magical Congress of the United States thought Credence was eliminated, yet he has survived and gone to Paris.
Hence where our heroes come into play. After his exploits in the last movie, Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander remains unable to leave his British homeland to indulge in his magic-zoological pursuits, and he further enrages the British Ministry of Magic when he refuses to seek and execute Credence like a 1930s version of wizard-007. Yet when his old Hogwarts teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) asks him to find Credence in Paris and save him from both the Ministry and the approaching influence of Grindelwald, how can Newt refuse? Especially as American witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is also in the city of lights, searching for the same lad on behalf of her U.S. counterparts. Even old friends Queenie and No-Maj Jacob Kowaski (Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler) are bouncing around with secrets of their own.
If the first Fantastic Beasts relied heavily on your nostalgia and knowledge of Rowling’s world then its sequel is truly a gospel for the most doctrinaire converts, at least in terms of the script. With lore of the wizarding world and the shrouded histories of both Dumbledore and Grindelwald at play, Rowling’s screenplay can be trenchant, yet as an overall moviegoing experience, it is much more broadly streamlined. Perhaps due to the spirit of Parisian sensibilities or simply in order to respond to notes of the rather somber grayness permeating Fantastic Beasts’ New York, The Crimes of Grindelwald has a comparably diverse aesthetic. With warm golden hues permeating the city streets and ancient continental lairs of its villains, the sequel is a more visually pleasing affair in terms of both production design and Phillippe Rousselot’s cinematography.
It’s also a fairly direct case of action movie plotting. The goofy premise of an animal-seeking adventurer at the heart of the first Fantastic Beasts ultimately became an incongruent pretext for Rowling to create a saga about the rise of her world’s own version of Nazism (which is itself only a more direct parallel to history than Voldemort’s followers in the original Harry Potter stories). So while the few narrative detours into Newt’s animal sanctuary-in-a-briefcase feel increasingly obligatory in the sequel, the film as a whole is also more digestible as an action-adventure chase across Paris for the majority of its runtime. It’s likewise decidedly confident about the darkness it now reaches for.
In this context, Redmayne’s introverted and standoffish protagonist remains a bit more aloof than what the material needs, but much of the remaining cast around him shine like a Lumos Maxima spell. In their few moments of levity together, Fogler’s outer-borough schmuck and Sudol’s witchy flapper are still a delight with their odd couple pairing. Yet both get intriguing new roles to play as they’re divided in Paris, and just as their comic relief adds nuanced layers, the new character introductions open Fantastic Beasts’ world up in exciting ways.
Essentially a newcomer after her cameo in the first movie, Zoë Kravitz brings an enigmatic mystique to the material as Leta Lestrange, Newt’s ex who is now engaged to his brother. Digging into the complications of what it’s like to grow up as an adult with some perspective on her Hogwarts school days, Kravitz crackles in scenes with Law’s Dumbledore. In an inspired bit of casting, Law inhabits a young (or at least middle-aged) Dumbledore with a mischievous glint in his eye. Often resigned to the role of heavies as of late, Law seems to wallow in the good professor’s tweed coats and tender inflections, even if there is always a slight shadow surrounding the instructor—a shadow that, along with his sexuality, is now further teased (ever so gently in the latter’s case).
Dumbledore’s scenes take Potter fans back to their beloved Hogwarts, as well as down memory lane for both Newt and Leta. These sequences are unquestionably, on a surface level, fan service, but they’re also the best scenes in the movie. In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine that a stronger prequel series might’ve just followed the adventures and schemes of a young Dumbledore, turning the tables on the school years’ formula of the original stories. It seems like an apt route to have gone because, two movies in, and it’s apparent this isn’t Newt’s story. It’s Dumbledore and Grendelwald’s.
Hogwarts’ beloved scholar is the one who sees the writing on the wall and the dark days that approach, and it is Grendelwald who hastens them not with the rhetoric of a monster, but as a self-proclaimed lover and protector of his fellow wizards—Depp even sneers he doesn’t hate muggles; he views them simply as “beasts of burden.” He wants to make the wizarding world great again, but as the form of that alleged greatness takes shape, the movie and franchise head toward uncomfortable waters. There are scenes in this movie that will be too grim for the youngest of children, and the picture’s cliffhanger ending is the epitome of downbeat, even with its vivid visual effects incantations attempting to distract from the bitterness.
It’s also bold territory for a four-quadrant franchise effort in this day and age to be so ambitious, even if it’s occasionally to its own detriment. That Rowling wants to take mainstream audiences here, all while her early 20th century allegory increasingly resembles a prophecy of the 21st century to come, makes this its own kind of magic trick.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens on Nov. 16.