The Wizarding World gets a lot bigger in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” a new fantasy adventure that plays like a 1,000-page novel shoved into a 134-minute running time. It’s full of exciting new characters, revelations and storylines, but the only way you could possibly keep them all in the air at the same time would be to use a Wingardium Leviosa spell. And spoiler alert: Those don’t actually exist.
The year is 1927, and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has been imprisoned by the American Ministry of Magic (side note: it’s odd that Americans would call it that). He’s getting transported by thestral coach all the way to Europe (those things must have a lot of stamina), but his loyal followers bust him loose in an action set piece that would be totally awesome and thrilling if the editing wasn’t so choppy and the lighting wasn’t so dark that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
Several months later, Grindelwald is still at large, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) still isn’t allowed to leave England to pursue his zoological studies. His brother Theseus (Callum Turner) is engaged to Newt’s high school crush, Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), and wants Newt to join him as an Auror, a.k.a. the magic police (for all you Muggles out there).
Newt is still a kind, quiet soul, unable to meet most people’s gaze when they talk to him, let alone take sides in a war. So he refuses to join the Aurors, even though it would mean he could finally leave the country, and he even refuses his old professor, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who wants Newt to travel to Paris to track down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who’s been missing since the end of the first “Fantastic Beasts” and still has a sinister, all-powerful magic parasite inside him called an Obscurus.
Okay, try to keep all that in your head, because we haven’t even set up the plot yet. Newt reunites with his old Muggle pal Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose memory wasn’t as erased as we were led to believe, and who is now engaged, illegally, to his psychic witch girlfriend Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol, “Transparent”), whose sister Tina (Katherine Waterston) is already in Paris, searching for Grindelwald.
It gets more complicated. Much more complicated. J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplays for these “Fantastic Beasts” movies, and one gets the distinct impression that she’s actually writing whole novels first and then never showing them to anybody, shaving off bits and bobs for time, and trusting her loyal audience to ascribe importance to everything, even if it gets short shrift on screen.
This could have been a serious problem, since director David Yates has a tendency to treat his “Wizarding World” movies like illustrations instead of adaptations, giving audiences the gist of what happens but forgetting to toy with our emotions or to reintroduce us to the characters and their wonderful world. But “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” though dense to a fault, always takes time to explore glorious moments of magic, to add levity to the grimmest moments, and to give almost all the characters time to shine. Emphasis on “almost.”
Newt remains one of the most distinctive heroes in blockbuster cinema, a quiet introvert who approaches every character and every beast with love and understanding and no small amount of awkwardness. Redmayne seems to have a firmer grasp on what makes Newt work, and the way he loosens up and gets more comfortable when he’s in his element. He tames giant, terrifying monsters like they were ornery housecats, and extends his hand to even the most malevolent wizards, even though he can barely talk to his friends.
The new characters don’t always fare so well, with seemingly important characters like Leta Lestrange and Nagini (Claudia Kim), who is cursed to gradually transform permanently into a giant snake, given important-sounding backstories but then precious little to actually do. Even Credence Barebone — for whom everyone is searching, and whose story seems to drive the entire “Fantastic Beasts” franchise — disappears for large chunks of screen time, making him seem too much like an afterthought.
Dumbledore, finally making an official appearance in these prequels, is a welcome return to the series. Jude Law captures the quick wit, easy charm and cloying inscrutability of the character, who is already considered one of the greatest wizards in the world but who refuses to face Grindelwald himself. “We were closer than brothers,” Dumbledore says, as he watches memories that evoke, but still refuse to openly admit to, the character’s obvious homosexuality, which is turning into an enormous distraction.
This inability to confront this wide wizarding world’s lack of representation is compounded by the treatment of Nagini, who is introduced as a sideshow attraction at a magical circus, then gets precious little opportunity to reveal who she really is, and why she’s more than just an example of awkward foreshadowing for her appearance in the “Harry Potter” franchise.
It’s hard to keep all these characters and storylines going, and the failings are annoying because the rest of the movie is fascinating and thrilling. After an awkward start with the first “Fantastic Beasts,” these “Crimes of Grindelwald” finally capture the promise of this new series, to view the world of magic and wonder through the eyes of adults instead of children, and to explore shadowy corners without completely losing track of just how delightful it all is. The actual investigation conducted by Newt, Tina, and just about everybody else is an intriguing adventure with exciting revelations. They just probably would have made more of an impact if the movie wasn’t so rushed for time that key elements feel like afterthoughts instead of lodestones.
“The Crimes of Grindelwald” probably had enough plot to drive a four-hour mini-series, but even so, what we get is often absorbing and grand. The sense that this magical world is actually, well, fantastic is finally back in the series. Although the film turns grim, and eventually evokes truly uncomfortable memories of the build-up to World War II — and, frankly, today — the delightful cast, exciting new creatures and dazzling new spells make it an enchanting place to visit; it’s just so scary and confusing that you probably wouldn’t want to live there.