When the second film in the flailing “Fantastic Beasts” franchise hit theaters in November 2018, this critic’s review of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes on Grindelwald” opened thus: “The cracks are starting to show in J.K. Rowling’s much-hyped followup series to ‘Harry Potter,’ a franchise that is at the mercy of slapdash planning (these films are cobbled together from various pieces of ‘Wizarding World’ material, not single novels) and the kind of higher-up decree that promised five films (five!) before the first one hit theaters. It’s a lot of time to fill, and while the second film in the franchise nudges its narrative forward, it’s at the expense of a bloated, unfocused screenplay.”
The series’ third outing, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” falls into precisely the same traps as its predecessor, offering up an unwieldy, mostly unsettling mash-up of adult themes and childish whimsy, made still more inscrutable by too many subplots, too many characters, and a tone that veers wildly off-course at every possible turn. And while there are moments in which it seems to be settling into something cohesive, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” can’t ever crack the own mysteries at its core.
Picking up soon after the events of the second film, this outing finds magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and a loose group of pals (including witches, wizards, and everyone’s favorite Muggle) on the hunt for the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen, a casting switcheroo the film never directly addresses, which is oddly refreshing). They’re aided by his heartbroken ex, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and things are made still more complicated by Grindelwald’s hold on the grim orphan Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and the waylaid Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). If it sounds like the last film, oh boy, does it ever.
The series has never been able to effectively marry its disparate threads — the wondrous joy of an entire taxonomy of magical creatures (delightful!) and the simmering darkness of a world divided (heavy!) — and that tension is even more pronounced in this third film. Grindelwald wants nothing less than a world war that pits the magical against the Muggles (gee, I wonder who will win), and the film’s reliance on Nazi-heavy imagery, like a series of marches in Berlin and the rise of a nefarious leader backed by frothing crowds, is far from entertaining. (Though a handful of brightly staged, CGI-heavy battles at least add some spark to the action.)
Mostly, it’s all uncomfortable and uneasy, and even the happiest moments, like the birth of a pair of magical creatures who have a real hand (hoof?) in the future of the magical world and its citizens, are immediately tempered by darkness. (Of note: The film’s PG-13 rating for “some fantasy action/violence” is no joke.)
Newt and Dumbledore’s quest to remove Grindelwald from his growing power is made still more complicated by other, magical twists. Chief among them that Grindelwald can see the future (and thus any moves they might make against him), and a long-standing blood oath means that Dumbledore can’t ever directly strike out at his former paramour (and vice versa). But that’s not the worst of it, as even with a seemingly direct mandate — “off Grindelwald” — the film constantly bumps and bounces between subplot after subplot. The result: Major pieces of information are tossed off in short conversations, certain stars go almost entirely missing, and key plot movements are iced way over.
Chalk it up to another holdover from “The Crimes of Grindelwald” that remains true: “Rowling seems to be playing to the fans in the thinnest way possible, building in stories that require foreknowledge to appreciate them fully. The unindoctrinated will be confused; the admirers, disappointed.” Even the addition of screenwriter Steve Kloves, who previously wrote all of the “Harry Potter” films and now finally joins Rowling, who is the sole credited writer for the franchise’s previous two entries, doesn’t offer much positive change besides a few moments of high-key Hogwarts nostalgia. You have to know what’s going on to know what’s going on, and as returning director David Yates, Rowling, and Kloves stretch it all out in the middle film of a planned five-film adventure, even they don’t always seem sure what’s unfolding before them.
And while Rowling’s own politics have forever tainted her legacy, even those blissfully immune to the writer’s personal leanings will likely feel an unnerving tone at play in the film; one minute, we’re being warned against a world that is being “pulled apart with hate and bigotry,” the next, a respected leader is reminding us that “all voices deserve to be heard,” even the hateful and stupid and ignorant and, yes, the genocidal. Magical, right?
There are, of course, highlights to be found. Law, whose Dumbledore often got the short end of the wand in the second film, shines as the conflicted wizard. Dan Fogler is a star, finding both humor and heart in his lovable Muggle Jacob Kowalski. There’s a greater ease between Newt and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), though both of the Scamanders seemed to have moved on pretty quickly from the trauma of the last film. And franchise newbie Jessica Williams adds some very necessary levity, in addition to being a fierce fighter. While the film continues the franchise’s tradition of being woefully unable to balance a variety of storylines, when Newt’s motley crew of fellow witches and wizards are together, there’s a spirit to the film that was lacking in the previous entry.
And yes, even Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s misbegotten romance finally gets termed as such — the film opens with a meeting between the two in which Dumbledore actually gets to say he was “in love with” Grindelwald; in a later sequence, he again refers to the summer they “fell in love” — but there’s little actual heat generated between the pair. They feel like grumpy old friends annoyed at the other’s diverging politics, a tone that doesn’t serve either their shared past or the awkward film franchise that follows it. Shouldn’t there be more there there? There is not.
Such is the problem with this entire franchise, which long ago traded magic for cheap tricks. Someone break out a real wand and put a spell on this series. It needs all the help it can get.
Warner Bros. opens “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” in the UK on Friday, April 8, and in the U.S. on Friday, April 15.