Review: Darker, bolder 'Fantastic Beasts' sequel goes all in on Johnny Depp, 'Potter' magic

Brian Truitt

Whereas the first “Fantastic Beasts” imagined J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in the Roaring Twenties without Harry Potter, the legacy of the boy with the lightning scar looms large in the expansive sequel.

Globe-trotting Newt Scamander heads off to Paris with an assignment from an old friend in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Nov. 16), the second of five planned spinoffs written by Rowling, is a darker and bolder film that intertwines different eras of the "Potter" mythology and delivers a more relevant cinematic villain than that malevolent snake face, Voldemort. Old-school Potterheads will rejoice, though fans of the charmingly quirky group of heroes from the first “Beasts” may lament their do-gooders getting lost in a growing magical landscape.

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“Crimes” picks up with animal-adoring protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) several months after he and his friends – No-Maj (or Muggle, if you're fancy) pal Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Newt’s quasi-love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) – helped take down the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in New York.

Since then, Grindelwald has escaped authorities and hightailed it to Paris, where he’s gathering followers interested in his sinister ideology: The antagonist believes pure-blood wizards have been in the shadows too long and should rule the entire world, not just the magical one. And he sees intensely repressed youngster Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who houses a powerful black energy known as an Obscurus, as an important key to taking his deadly plans to the next level.

Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) keeps himself at arm's length from dangerous goings-on in the "Fantastic Beasts" sequel.

Having published his magizoology tome following his grand New York adventure, Newt is recruited by his one-time Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), to track down Credence before Grindelwald does. The twisty plot leads to an explosive climax at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, as well as some switching allegiances and a couple of important reveals, including a jaw-dropper for the “Potter” faithful that’ll have them clamoring for the threequel.

Director David Yates (who also helmed the first “Beasts” and the final four of eight “Potter” films) is a master of juggling the big, action-packed set pieces with gripping character moments. With the “Fantastic” movies especially, he also imbues a childlike wonder with critters that include an underwater seaweed dragon called a Kelpie and the skeletal, flying horse-like Thestrals who take part in Grindelwald’s awesome airborne jailbreak.

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But the ambition of “Crimes,” from the ballooning cast to the gymnastics required to connect the story to the grander mythology, threatens to derail the episode at times. One subplot involving French-African magic man Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s Hogwarts crush, is downright head-spinning. However, as much as the new sequel bridges gaps to various “Potter” lineages and personalities, it also ties into real-world history in intriguing fashion. 

Dark wizard Gellert Grendelwald (Johnny Depp) gathers followers for his sinister ideology.

The cast is solid across the board, led by returning stars Redmayne, Waterston and Miller (who gets a lot more to do this time). And Depp, whose very appearance in these movies has been questioned by fans because of the actor's offscreen controversies, proves a worthy bad guy with his Grindelwald, a silver-tongued, entrancing leader with a penchant for holding rallies. (He's basically wizard Trump.)

The “Potter” saga is a rich, sprawling and beloved tale, and the inspired “Beasts” films are seemingly committed to filling in important nooks and crannies: Hufflepuffs and Slytherins alike will enjoy seeing Dumbledore as an emotionally troubled teacher decades before becoming Harry's eccentric mentor.

“Crimes” is missing some of the goofy appeal of the original “Beasts,” where stopping lovable creatures from making a mess of the Big Apple comprised much of the conflict. But the world keeps turning and the threats get bigger for heroic wand-wavers, even the resident magizoologist.