I’ve never read a Harry Potter book in my life, but I had no problem following and fully enjoying the film series over the course of many years. But what I have found with the Fantastic Beasts movies is that the more distance there is between the Potter films and these new ones, the less invested I feel in the early tales. Here “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his collection of misfit wizards are attempting to keep the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from not only taking over the wizarding world but the world of humans (Muggles) as well. (Grindelwald is played by a new actor in each film; this time he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, easily the best characterization of the bunch.)
In the second installment, The Crimes of Grindelwald, the story basically made Newt a secondary character in his own story, making more room for powerhouse actors like Jude Law (who was brought in to play a dashing young Albus Dumbledore), Johnny Depp (as the previous Grindelwald), and Zoë Kravitz. Thankfully, The Secrets of Dumbledore course corrects at least some of that, making this installment the strongest of the three (which is, of course, all relative). Digging too deep into the story seems fruitless, but Grindelwald is now acting more overtly evil, taking captive a rare creature that is used in selecting the new leader of the wizarding community and training it to pick him. Dumbledore knows something is up and gathers members of the previous team, including Newt and his Muggle sidekick/baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who is still mourning his breakup with Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), now working for Grindelwald (or is she undercover?).
For reasons I’m not quite sure I understand, Queenie’s sister Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) essentially sits this one out, only showing up near the end, as she is now running the American wizarding world. Also brought in to help are Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner, who was introduced in the last film), and Dumbledore’s pub-owning brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle). Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the subplot revolving around Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose lineage and good or bad leanings were crucial to the previous films. We basically spend most of the film waiting to see which way he breaks, knowing full well that his Dumbledore roots make it likely he’ll be useful to the good wizards. In fact, there are several characters who act strictly as plot devices, as we wait to see during crucial moments whether they will help Dumbledore or Grindelwald; it gets to be a bit tiresome after a while.
Law seems to have settled in nicely into the role of Dumbledore, who we find out in a great opening sequence used to be in loving relationship with Grindelwald, until the latter decided all Muggles had to die. Dumbledore seems to have the tendency to take the long way around for him and his cohorts to solve a problem, but it usually works out in the end. This series is one that appears to believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so once again we have David Yates directing (he helmed the last four Harry Potter films and all three Fantastic Beasts movies). More interesting, the film’s screenplay is credited to J.K. Rowling (who wrote the first two screenplays) and Steve Kloves (who had a hand in all the Potter movies, but none of these newer ones), with the additional credit “Based on the screenplay by J.K. Rowling.” That likely means the studio brought in Kloves to punch up Rowling’s dry and wandering writing, with obvious results. The film still feels stiff and reductive, but at least there’s some sense of drama and danger, due in large part to Mikkelsen’s sly and sinister performance.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Secrets of Dumbledore. In fact, there are moments when it gets a lot right. But some of the characters are severely underwritten and are put into situations where we need to care about them in order for the film to work—and we don’t. The stranger thing about the film is that it feels like the final chapter of something. Most of the threads are tied up, and if the series never returned (it was originally said there would be five chapters in total), that would be just fine with me. I actually like the way this movie ties things together and leaves only vague threats of future danger in the wind. It might be time to put the Potterverse to bed for a reasonable stretch, and this is a decent sendoff for those who are still invested in this world.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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