In 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling opened numerous doors into the Wizarding World; with the first sequel, she shuts and locks most of them. Problematically, Fantastic Beasts has never been about where to find fantastic beasts. Rowling merely sought another group of magical heroes and villains to wage a great war for the soul of magic.
Rather than focusing on an obvious, previously introduced, beloved hero—legendary wizard Albus Dumbledore—Rowling chose to focus on a minor character: an introverted magizoologist named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Imagine if, rather than focusing on the rise of Darth Vader, George Lucas had shown the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire through the eyes of a minor Jedi. (Actually, that plot sounds better, so scratch that analogy.) The more time spent with Newt the reluctant hero, the more obvious it is he would have spent the entire war seeking Zouwu in the remote reaches of China while his favorite professor squares off with Gellert Grindelwald.
With no novel for guidance, no one knew Rowling’s plans going into the first Fantastic Beasts, and the early acts set up an exciting Wizarding World that extended far beyond Hogwarts and even England. By its conclusion, Rowling had sketched a map of where these new wizards and witches were headed, and announced Johnny Depp would be accompanying them. In Fantastic Beasts 2, Newt and his pal, Jacob Kowalski (the absolutely refreshing Dan Fogler), hunt for Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol, who cutely conjures classic Hollywood) and potentially dangerous Obscurial Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in 1927 Paris.
Mostly, though, Fantastic Beasts 2 is dominated by the revelatory proclamations of Grindelwald, who is less appealing than He Who Must Not Be Named himself, thanks to the unwarranted casting of Depp. Original villain Colin Farrell would have brought less baggage and been a more age-appropriate paramour for Jude Law’s Dumbledore. Even without the allegations clouding his personal life, Depp has gone from asset to detractor, thanks to quirky performance choices whose meager rewards diminish with each new character.
Fantastic Beasts 2 is not without some early fun à la its predecessor, all involving Newt’s dealings with his magical menagerie (baby Nifflers are super-cute) or Jacob. Once Rowling starts stirring the overstuffed plot, exposition starts falling out, and the film feels less magical and more like a textbook reading assigned to Harry, Hermione and Ron for ghostly Professor Binns’ History of Magic class. Jude Law does make a scrumptious “Yumbledore,” whose more intimate involvement in bringing down his old flame is made essential by a characteristic Rowling revelation. Too bad this underwhelming sequel makes the idea of three more Fantastic Beasts sound like a Voldemort-ian threat.