The beasts are starting to live up to their adjective.
When the Harry Potter spin-off movie “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” came out in 2016, it sapped the magic and British charm right out of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World™.
Though it starred an English actor, Eddie Redmayne, as bumbling animal expert Newt Scamander, the film was set in a dingy 1920s New York. No more Hogwarts, Platform 9 ¾ and 4 Privet Drive — just Wall Street, which was definitely no Diagon Alley.
But that film’s much-improved sequel, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” wisely leaves the States for a more otherworldly London and Paris, all the while discovering the heart and drive of this new series.
Oh, and Johnny Depp is there — more on Capt. Wack Sparrow later.
After his fracas in the Big Apple, Newt finds himself back in London, forbidden from leaving the UK. But, on the orders of a young Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), he sneaks over to France to thwart the menacing Grindelwald (Depp), a dangerous anti-muggle leader with Guy Fieri hair. Grindelwald is a bit like Voldemort, if Harry Potter’s nemesis went on controversial college campus speaking tours.
Newt (played as before, endearingly, by Redmayne) is again joined by Jacob (Dan Fogler), Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Tina (Katherine Waterston), and as they hunt down the villain and search for Credence (Ezra Miller), a destructive wizard Grindelwald wants to recruit.
This film, like its predecessor, doesn’t have many innocent moments of discovery the “Harry Potter” movies were known for: no cute kids figuring out how to levitate a feather or ride a broom. This story is less about friendship and more about the world’s corrosive evils, namely intolerance and corruption.
Those themes were tough to swallow the first time around, because the movie was not only a downer, but a meandering mess. “Grindelwald” gives us a proper villain and a purpose for this series of — gulp — five eventual movies.
Depp these days seems an unlikely star of a major family film, thanks to all his real-life family-unfriendly dramas. Ex-wife Amber Heard claimed he abused her, which he denies; he’s been booted from Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and he told Rolling Stone he’s nearly broke. Whether or not you care to see him on screen is up to you, but he’s certainly well-cast here as a zombie-like scoundrel.
Somehow less mangy-looking than Depp are the animals. Inside Newt’s Mary Poppins-style suitcase live hundreds of exotic magical creatures, all vibrantly designed and incredibly cute. The best is a new one — a lion-dragon blend that hails from Asia and enjoys a game of fetch.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to miss Harry and the sprawl of that eight-film epic: An entire generation’s favorite story is a hard act to follow. But in his second outing, Newt has proved himself a lovable lizard — er, wizard.
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