J.K. Rowling could have easily just taken her hundreds of millions of dollars from her creation of the “Harry Potter” universe and happily spent the rest of her life without dreaming up any more magic spells or silly wizard names.
Instead, she switched from novels to screenplays, penning a wholly original script set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and taking the setting from our modern era to the 1920s.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” came out in 2016 and introduced the world to Newt Scamander (the great Eddie Redmayne), an unassuming wizard who moves about the world as a lover and protector of magical creatures. Think of him as the Marlin Perkins for hippogriffs and unicorns.
“Fantastic Beasts” was enjoyable enough, as Newt visited New York City, befriended witchy sisters Tina (Katherine Waterson) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) and affable muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler) and tried to separate a troubled boy named Credence (Ezra Miller) from a particularly dangerous magical force.
What “Fantastic Beasts” lacked was that magical spark as, even though there were a lot of familiar elements, it felt very separate from the world of Harry Potter so many came to love.
That’s what makes the sequel “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” a marked improvement as, in addition to the appearance of some beloved characters, Rowling is back in her wheelhouse of massive power struggles, heartbreaking betrayals, and deep, dark familial secrets.
“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is even a little more nuanced than the best of the “Harry Potter” films and that is thanks primarily to the titular villain. Grindelwald is played by Johnny Depp in a refreshingly restrained performance, which is surprising at first given his character’s wild appearance with bleach-blonde hair and different colored eyes.
In Harry Potter’s world, Voldemort was just plain evil as were (pretty much) all of his associates. And sure, Grindelwald has a megalomaniacal streak and is unquestionably ruthless in his desire to have wizards and witches step out of the shadows and rule the human world. But he’s not entirely wrong as humanity sits on a course of devastation between World Wars and he makes some compelling arguments in support of his ultimate power grab.
He seems overwhelmingly formidable, which means it’s a good thing a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is on the case and pulling the strings for the good guys, as he sends Newt to Paris where he reunites with his old friends and attempts to stop Grindelwald from tracking down Credence.
There’s a whole lot of plot here as Rowling moves from setting the stage to diving right in by throwing a ton of characters and back story in our direction. Fortunately, director David Yates is a steady hand, as he has been at the helm of the Harry Potter world since “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” more than a decade ago and he knows how to guide us through the dense family trees and plot twists.
There are three more “Fantastic Beasts” films to follow this one, which means “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is going to leave you with more questions than answers, but for Rowling’s fans, this movie is a treat and proves she is still very much on top of her game.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action.