By John Mulderig
For a film about magic, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was strangely lacking in enchantment. So it’s welcome news that the follow-up, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Warner Bros.) is sharper and more engaging, though defects remain.
The sequel is suitable for a wide audience since the mayhem is free of gore and the basic values congruent with scriptural ones. At least for those paying careful attention, however, a single line of dialogue may raise parental concerns.
What has returning screenwriter and Harry Potter scribe JK Rowling, conjured up this time? Essentially a whole lot of trouble for the main character of the first movie, awkward critter-collecting introvert Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).
Newt finds himself caught up in a multi-sided struggle among powerful forces within the world of wizardry.
Having escaped the well-deserved captivity into which he was delivered at the end of the original outing, villainous Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has a scheme for world domination that doesn’t bode well for non-magical humans.
Though he mysteriously refuses a direct confrontation with Grindelwald, future Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), the only opponent capable of defeating the malefactor, asks Newt to keep an eye on him. Even as he tracks Grindelwald, Newt shyly pursues romance with his true love, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).
He also tries to maintain his fraught relationship with his bureaucrat brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), despite the broad differences in their personalities.
Director David Yates works up more energy than marked the last outing, which he also helmed. But the plot is overly complicated.
Grindelwald’s plan, for instance, somehow involves the troubled family history of melancholy Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) as well as the childhood experiences of Theseus’ passionate fiancee, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz).
A heavy reliance on special effects and cuddly animals further weakens the proceedings.
Moral issues aren’t touched on much. Dumbledore does express admiration for Newt’s consistent resolve to do the right thing in any given situation and the script promotes tolerance and a preference for peace over force.
As for the sorcery on display, it’s pretty standard stuff and unlikely to draw even impressionable youngsters toward the dark side. If there are any red flags to be raised, they will be hoisted by allusion to an entirely different subject.
We eventually learn, both through discussion and silent flashbacks, that in youth Dumbledore and Grindelwald, far from being enemies, were the best of friends.
When another character observes that the two were as close as brothers, Dumbledore answers that they were even closer.
Given that Rowling has publicly identified Dumbledore as gay, viewers steeped in Potter lore may wonder if Dumbledore is hinting that the lads had a sexual relationship.
All the more so given the way their hands intertwine at the end of a ceremony in which they become blood brothers. But there the matter is dropped. So those seeking either confirmation or contradiction of all this will have to await the next instalment.
The film, rated M, contains much stylised bloodless violence, occult themes, some gruesome images and a possible reference to homosexuality.