Beasts plunges into its second installment with almost no preamble, presuming a deep familiarity and level of knowledge that millions of dedicated fans will no doubt rise to meet more than halfway, but that leaves uninitiated Muggles almost entirely in the dark.
The film essentially begins with a prison break: Wizarding-world dissident Gellert Grindelwald (a crepuscular, chalk-haired Johnny Depp , looking like the jack-booted ghost of David Byrne and Julian Assange) has been held captive for months by the American Ministry of Magic.
Smash cut to London and Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander in his signature rumpled tweeds and side-swept tumbleweed of hair: a soul so recessively gentle that it feels almost cruel to drag him away from the delightfully mundane tasks of supernatural zookeeping and into the dirty, nasty business of saving the world.
There’s also Newt’s onetime school crush Leta Lestrange (a soulful, troubled Zoë Kravitz), now engaged to his brother Theseus (Callum Turner); French-African wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), on his own simultaneous hunt for Credence; a blood-cursed Maledictus named Nagini (Claudia Kim, bringing as much humanity as she can to the role of a woman constantly forced to morph into a python); and Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), an immortal alchemist who gives Grindelwald a run for his galleons in the pale-wraith department.
And as Rowling piles on the mythology and backstories and subplots, the movie begins to feel a little bit like walking into a wind tunnel and being asked, in 134 minutes, to put the swirling pages of her wildly dense script back together.
Though it’s the Oscar-winning team of production designer Stuart Craig and costumer Colleen Atwood whose spectacular work makes the specifics of Rowling’s vision truly come alive onscreen, filling every frame with their own lush, mood-building brand of enchantment.
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