Technically, it’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” but the connection to the previous movie only seems to lie in shared characters.
This being the second installment in the expanded Wizarding World cinematic universe based upon the writings of J.K. Rowling. Once again we follow Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as his path crosses wizard-criminal Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). A handful of other characters return from the first installment (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), but whereas that film was often fun and somewhat light-hearted, this film takes a decidedly darker turn.
In the Harry Potter stories, the main villain was, of course, Lord Voldemort. Voldemort wanted to eradicate all non-magical people and any wizards or witches born to non-magical people. Fairly grim enough circumstances, to be sure. Grindelwald is essentially his inspirational predecessor, wanting wizarding folk to rule over the non-magical people of the world. Unlucky Newt Scamander happened to run across the villain in 1920s New York City, and now he is unfortunately being drawn into the thick of things once again, whether he likes it or not. The Ministry of Magic has laid down punishments on Newt for his misadventures in New York City, and they offer to alleviate those if he’ll assist in taking down a particular wizard known to Newt and sought after by Grindelwald. Newt also learns that his NYC love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is now working for the American wizard government, and is also attempting to track down the same wizard.
In this darker-themed film we learn the British Ministry of Magic is rather brutal. The Aurors — magical law enforcement who track down criminal wizards and users of dark magic — are actually outright killing those associated with Grindelwald, rather than arresting them. Grindelwald and his associates also just seem to kill anyone who crosses them or has something they want. There’s a lot of implied and shown killing going on (albeit bloodless, as death by magical curse doesn’t make much of a mess).
We are introduced to a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), which we all knew was coming from the publicity around it, and from the Harry Potter novels that explained some of Dumbledore’s involvement in the Grindelwald incident(s). But the filmmakers and J.K. Rowling take things even further, into almost George Lucas prequel territory, by also including many other famous names from the Harry Potter series in this story that takes place so many decades before The Boy Who Lived. While I do trust Rowling more as a storyteller than Lucas, I do have to wonder why these familiar names were used, rather than just having others involved. By including them (I’m purposely not naming them here to avoid spoilers) the Wizarding World has gotten a little smaller, rather than grown larger, as it seems only these same key people and families will be doing anything of note.
Likewise, some of the returning characters seemed to just be dropped into the story with little fanfare, little reason to be there, and ultimately to serve as dramatic backdrops and emotional cliffhangers. We still get to meet several of the magical creatures Newt has captured and studied, as well as at least one new edition he finds during his latest adventure. But, unlike the first film, these aren’t the focus.
For unknown reasons, in the first film we were introduced to the Magical Congress of the United States of America. In this sequel it is referred to as the American Ministry of Magic. No explanation given for the change, but I suspect it was done for simplicity’s sake since we also spend time with the British Ministry of Magic, as well as the French Ministry of Magic. Conformity and all that.
At the end of the day, was it an entertaining film? Yes. But a film that, for me at least, lost some of the whimsy and wonder of the previous installment, and replaced that with some eye-roll worthy points. It’s still well-made, well-acted, and so on, but it felt like it could have been better than it is. Better explanations for events and character involvement. Better explanations why some characters make the decisions they make. Etc.