With this film, J.K. Rowling’s immense canon now spans twenty-plus years of wizards and witches over several eras and continents. It’s a lot of mythology to digest, and the uninitiated may approach such a feast with caution. Those who have previously devoured will no doubt revel another go at the trough. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t so much blow the Potter-verse wide open as simply maintain it for another film. This movie–like its predecessors–is built on exuberant, infectious imagination and eye-popping technical mastery. As pure entertainment, it’s boundlessly energetic and fun all the way through–provided you know enough Potter to follow the goings-on.
The story takes up where the first Beast left us: Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, looking a little like Bowie’s Thin White Duke), the Roaring Twenties answer to Voldemort, is chained up in a supermax pokey for wizard war criminals. Grindelwald is so charismatic the guards have magically plucked out his tongue to prevent new followers to his cause. Will Grindelwald find a way to bust out of the clinky-clink and crack wizard skulls? You can bet your biscuit mix on it. Luckily, Rowling has a new cadre of plucky rapscallions to hurl back the mustache-twirling forces of evil: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the dweebish beastmaster who totes a suitcase (Or is it a valise? Holy hell if I know.) filled with adorable “monsters” who dote on him like a magical Ellie Mae Clampett. Tina Goldstein and her sister Queenie (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, respectively) are flapper girl-witches who bring a wild-eyed baker (Dan Folger) along for the ride.
Like the Potter films before it, this Beast spends a lot of time building storm clouds on the horizon. Good and evil are gonna go Thunderdome in a future movie, making this one just an expository sparring match. Jude Law’s Albus Dumbledore pops up like a placeholder–you know he’ll do some badass stuff later. Again, Rowling fanatics will eat it up–it means the Hogwarts ride ain’t gonna stop any time soon–while causal viewers will be frustrated with the implied “To Be Continued” at the end of this film. If you can handle an ellipsis at the end of all this sound and fury, you’ll be just fine. Some people need definite closure to things, you all know who you are…
A lot of the fun in Potter-land lies in the visual throwaways Rowling and director David Yates chuck onscreen. Seaweed dragons and ornery, anthropomorphic stick insects traipse across this cinematic canvas, if no other reason than to add an eccentric brush stroke or two. It keeps things lively and fresh, and gives viewers new things to find on repeat viewings. And maybe that’s a shortcoming of the film: It assumes that if your ass is in the theater seat, that means you’ve read and watched and read and watched and all these nuances and callbacks to earlier books and movies are things you’ll catch and enjoy. Newcomers may feel the tug to go back to the beginning and take in this wealth of material from the start. Or they may just be muggles who get frustrated and need to be oblivated.