“Bunty, the baby nifflers are loose again.”
And with that, the hero of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” signals to his housekeeper — and to the audience, really — that this new chapter in the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, as mumbly and bumbly as ever) will have at least one antic chase scene featuring CGI critters.
(Nifflers, which resemble platypuses, are the ewoks of the 21st century. Every appearance by a niffler in this film was met by a chorus of awws at a screening, and that was from grown-ups. Keep your eyes on them, though, and not just because they’re cute. One of them plays a significant role.)
But there’s something — or, rather, someone — far less adorable that has also escaped in this Harry Potter prequel, which takes a turn for the dark side that will satisfy the franchise’s adult fans even more. As the film opens, in a bravura, wham-bam prologue that combines action with shivery terror, the title character, an evil wizard played by Johnny Depp, is seen escaping from detention while being transferred from a New York prison to face punishment for unspecified crimes in Europe.
What crimes? Possibly his haircut: a peroxide-blond brush cut that makes Depp look like a scoutmaster for the local chapter of the Hitler Youth. More seriously, he wants power.
Once Grindelwald lands in Paris, Newt — a glorified dogcatcher, clearly out of his league — is dispatched to go after the fugitive wizard by his former Hogwarts teacher, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, looking not a bit like he could ever grow old enough to turn into Michael Gambon). Why doesn’t Dumbledore, one of the most powerful wizards who ever lived, go after Grindelwald himself? Ahh, you’ll just have to wait to find out.
Newt is aided in this mission by sidekicks returning from the 2016 “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”: baker Jacob Kowalski and magical sisters Queenie and Porpentina — known as Tina — Goldstein (Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston). J.K Rowling, who wrote this surprise-filled screenplay for veteran Potter director David Yates, has a real knack for names. The film’s other key character, also returning from the previous film, is a young man named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
As we learned in the previous installment, Credence is an Obscurial (a wizard who has repressed his magical abilities, which, in his case, have manifested themselves in the form of an Obscurus: a dark, uncontrollably destructive entity). Rowling is also quite clever with subtext, the Obscurus being a wonderful metaphor for the unhealthy neurosis that can develop when you deny your true self. There are also political overtones here — as there have been in every other Potter book and film — in the hostility and persecution that exists between Wizards and the non-magical Muggles, also known as No-Majs. That polarization is a metaphor for the modern world if ever there were one.
Credence is being pursued by Newt, who wants to neutralize the power of the Obscurus, and by Grindelwald, who wants to harness it to suppress the No-Majs. That battle forms the crux of the film, around which all else revolves, including romantic subplots involving Jacob, Queenie, Tina and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz).
Credence, for his part, is also on a hunt. An apparent orphan who was raised by No-Majs, he wants to discover his true identity. And boy, will he. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” has one of the biggest third-act reveals in the whole Harry Potter series.
All of this serves a greater purpose, the fullness of which will be revealed only over the course of the next three planned films. One other thing that Rowling is good at: planning. “Grindelwald’s” story, set in 1927, may be all about nifflers and wizards, but it’s also very much a parable of the world today. Grindelwald is a demagogue. He holds rallies. He incites his followers to violence by demonizing the other. His power comes not from a wand, but from dividing people against one another.
Sound familiar? It should. In “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” there’s another He Who Shall Not Be Named, whose shadow looms large over everything, and I ain’t talking about Voldemort.
PG-13. Opens Nov. 16 at area theaters. Contains some sequences of fantasy action. 134 minutes.