I thoroughly enjoyed eight Harry Potter movies, believing them to be the best adaptations of young-adult books out there, and telling thrilling stories that made for beautifully cinematic, self-contained films.
Only once, with the seventh movie — “Deathly Hallows, Part 1” — did the story literally feel like half the story, becoming a movie that was merely a bridge to action to come in the next picture.
With “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” J.K. Rowling’s second movie franchise and a prequel that expands upon Potter’s “Wizarding World” lore, this fate happens in film No. 2.
Now that we’ve learned there will be five films in this series, here’s hoping that “Fantastic Beasts” Nos. 3 and 4 don’t also feel like they’re still setting up the plot.
And that they unveil better reveals than this one spends two-plus hours building toward.
This dark, over-stuffed and uneven but gorgeous-looking, beautifully scored and richly costumed sequel may be embraced by Potterverse fans, but it may also be losing those with something less than an allegiance to all things Rowling.
In the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie in 2016, there was a plethora of background information and supporting figures, but I liked some of the main characters so much that I recommended it happily.
Now, there are just too many people doing too many things.
That’s from main characters who aren’t examined deeply enough to understand their motivations to side characters who seem to have important roles to play but we’re not sure why.
One of the few to make progress here is Eddie Redmayne as our lead character Newt Scamander, the wizard we saw travel from England to 1926 New York in the first film, 70 years before Harry Potter ever arrives at Hogwarts.
Newt is a “magizoologist,” or essentially a wizard animal-rescue specialist, traveling the globe to locate magical beasts so he can better educate the wizarding world about these creatures.
Introduced as a painfully shy nerd only capable of a meaningful relationship with his creatures, Newt is more aggressive in this film, when it comes to how he’ll be manipulated by wizarding groups, how he expresses a romantic notion and how he fights back when necessary.
Now back in 1927 London, the fight is on: Johnny Depp was revealed to be playing Gellert Grindelwald, one of the darkest wizards ever, in the first film, and now, he’s escaped and planning to create a new world order.
In a Rowling screenplay conflict that feels positively Trumpian in its nationalism and smacks of increasing European populism, Grindelwald wants “pure-blood” wizards to rule over the nonmagic population.
These “muggles” would not be killed, he says, because “beasts of burden are always needed.”
Hanging in the balance is a century of peace between these worlds, and groups like Great Britain’s Ministry of Magic want to not only stop Grindelwald and his minions, but also his recruitment of a young wizard played by Ezra Miller whose immense and untrained magic could tip the balance of power.
There’s more. A lot more.
There are romances both advanced and crushed; spells that manipulate people’s minds; characters facing their greatest fears; and darkness, great darkness, in an almost humor-free film.
I laughed once at the actions of one of Newt’s unusual critters (love the scrounging Nifflers), and I marveled at new animals, such as a massive, fast-swimming sea creature and a gigantic cat-like figure with actions that resembled a twitchy Chinese dragon.
The CGI work here is maybe the best of 2018, vivid in artistry and colors and dimensions that create great depth of vision for outlandish action scenes.
If only as much detail had been focused on existing characters played by Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, which were favorites of mine from the first film and receive minimal character development here.
That’s opposed by the introduction of more Harry Potter tie-ins, like introducing Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore, which made me wonder if the filmmakers think this series can stand on its own developing lore.
They’ve got three more movies to show us if that’s true.