Without overpraising the charm of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” or undervaluing the baseline proficiency of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” I must report: It took J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-adjacent franchise exactly one film for the shrugs to set in, even with all those fine actors up there amid expensive digital blue flames.
Partly it’s the story Rowling’s telling, and partly it’s the way it’s told. When last we saw “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), in 1926 New York, he and his fellow magic-world denizen, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), led the way in capturing the Dark Wizard fascist on the rise, Gellert Grindelwald, one of several characters introduced in much older incarnations by Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In this film, he’s played by Johnny Depp in S&P mode: Serious, and Pausing a lot. For … dra … MAT … ic … effec…….T.
Captivity doesn’t suit this icy blond thug, always purring about his plans to remake the world in the “pure-blood” nationalist image. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” opens with his escape, by dragon-powered stagecoach, and proceeds from New York to London to Paris. Grindelwald’s old friend turned sworn enemy, Dumbledore (Jude Law), kibbitzes from the sidelines, while Newt, Tina, Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Tina’s mind-reading flapper sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) join forces.
Sort of. There’s a considerable amount of squabbling and separating and relationship trouble alongside the rest of the calamity in Rowling’s screenplay. Does Newt’s heart belong to Tina, to Leta (Zoe Kravitz), to his many beasties, or what? All of them, really, and this is Rowling’s great strength as a fantasist: She knows how to complicate already complicated feelings and sympathies.
The chief riddle in “The Crimes of Grindelwald” concerns the true identity of the Hogwarts Hitler’s prized possession, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). When the revelations and explanations arrive, best of luck to all who bring less than a fervent interest in expositional plate-setting.
The director David Yates has four “Potter” outings behind him, and he’s in line for the entirety of the “Fantastic Beasts” series. The film has its moments, usually small ones: I like the water bucket portal, for example. When Rowling flashes back to Hogwarts for scenes of young Newt and Leta discovering fellow outsiders in each other, it’s a welcome respite from the pounding noise levels and scare tactics dominating the rest of the picture.
In all: OK. For the record, the climax — a baldly allegorical political ally echoing both the Third Reich and the current U.S. president’s get-togethers — goes on and on, as if it were wrapping up the franchise, instead of part two out of five.