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Fantastic Beasts 2 review: A lovable mess

The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment in JK Rowling's wizarding series, is packed with magical concepts only fans will comprehend.

Warner Bros.

We first saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gambol out of the wilderness in 2001 as a novella written by J.K. Rowling to benefit UK nonprofit Comic Relief. The slim volume had fun cataloguing the outlandish creatures of Harry Potter's wizarding world. 

These days, it's a very different beast.

That little novella is now a box office-bewitching movie series, with two star-studded, effects-driven blockbusters down and a mammoth three sequels still to come.

While the first in the series didn't quite reach Rowling's high standards, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald offers greater stakes, a tyrannical villain and more of those adorable creatures only Rowling's creative genius can come up with. And if nothing else, the Fantastic Beasts franchise provides us with yet another way into Rowling's much-loved and incredibly detailed magical world.

But it's definitely for fans and fans alone.

Fantastic Beasts 2 is dense with Harry Potter references, and a firmer hand in the editing suite may have helped cut through a swathe of Potteresque subplots.

Yet there's something to love about this unruly creature, which leaped into theaters Thursday in Australia and arrived Friday in the US and the UK. Thanks to a script from Rowling herself, there's a creativity and wit you won't see in the average fantasy movie. With plenty of character reveals, cameos and references, it's a must for fans.

The average viewer, meanwhile, may need a strong butterbeer to recover.

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Johnny Depp plays Grindelwald, the OG evil wizard overlord.

Warner Bros.

Covering no less than four major cities, Rowling's story plays out like a novel, chapter by chapter, focusing on different characters and their struggles with familiar themes. OG evil wizard overlord Grindelwald -- an eloquent but not exactly terrifying Johnny Depp with white eyelashes and one white eye -- shares similarities with the Harry Potter villain who shall not be named, building followers and promoting a world where wizards and witches are no longer hidden from non-magic folk.

Eddie Redmayne, master of the audible mumble, returns as our hero Newt Scamander. He's joined by Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore, who sets Newt to finding the previous movie's unfortunate Credence. Played by Ezra Miller, who's best known as the Flash in the DC movies, Credence is part of Grindelwald's grand plan, for some long and complicated reason.

The characters spend most of their time popping in and out of 1920s Paris and London in the blink of an eye. The hilarious Dan Fogler steals all his scenes as Jacob Kowalski, Newt's non-magical sidekick. His love for the magical Queenie (the equally magical Alison Sudol), meanwhile, suffers from the prejudices of the wizarding world. "People like me can't marry people like you," she says.

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The hilarious Dan Fogler, who plays Jacob Kowalski, and a bunch of fantastic beasts.

Warner Bros.

There are so many couples it's hard to keep track. Not only is the movie set before the events of Harry Potter, it skips, hops and leaps through other moments in time, building backstories to help us get to know characters better, but also adding a vast and sometimes confusing amount of padding to the main story.

Where it soars is its stunning creature CGI and hugely impressive set designs, including a kind of 1920s Parisian Diagon Alley. Colleen Atwood deserves a shout for her costumes that enrich the Fantastic Beasts world while probably increasing trench coat sales to boot.

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One of the incredible sets.

Warner Bros.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is a visual carnival packed with magical creatures and objects you'll need to pause the Blu-ray to entirely take in: A wizarding version of a Roomba cleans the red carpets of the Ministry of Magic, statues smile and change poses like paintings, and house-elves are commonplace, helping their masters wipe windows or magic tents into thin air.

Fans will also note that the Nifflers are back. Correction, baby Nifflers. They're much cuter than Porgs and will no doubt fly off the shelves.

While its real-world themes can be on the nose, the moral values of Newt's story are timeless. Squared at both a young and adult audience, it asks us to do as Newt does. Seek neither power nor popularity and love all creatures, no matter how strange.

A messy, yet lovable beast, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will be a revelation for fans hungry for character backstories and relationship developments. But it'll lose the rest in an explosion of magical concepts that might have been better understood in book form.

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