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The lingering glances, the wistful remembrances of a love that could not be, the simmering passion within the genteel setting of an afternoon tea: The opening scene of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is hot. And it’s all the more so because the actors playing opposite each other, Jude Law and Mads Mikkelsen, are both beautiful men who bring a striking screen presence as well as a subtle sense of emotion to this moment.
Then it’s all downhill from there, albeit with a few thrills and enjoyable diversions scattered along the way.
These “Fantastic Beasts” movies are just not good. They’re extremely OK, but never truly inspiring or transporting. This third installment is somewhat of an improvement over 2018’s dour “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and it’s about on par with the first film in the series, 2016’s whimsical “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” in terms of pure enjoyment. They’re all chasing the dragon of that astronomical, worldwide, once-in-a-generation “Harry Potter” success, but each new movie in this spinoff franchise reminds us of how unnecessary and inferior they are.
They can fly over Hogwarts and play a snippet of the soaring John Williams theme as young wizards chase the snitch in a game of Quidditch (an image that inspired my 12-year-old son to groan, “Fan service!” during a recent screening). It’s just one more element in a film crammed with too many characters, too much plot, and too little actual magic. David Yates is back once again as director, having helmed the previous two “Fantastic Beasts” and the final four “Harry Potter” movies. Veteran “Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves returns to this world, joining J.K. Rowling, creator of the entire universe, who wrote the first two scripts solo. Despite all that expertise—or perhaps because of it—“The Secrets of Dumbledore” feels overstuffed as it lumbers from one plotline to another. Keeping all those plates spinning looks awfully strenuous, especially within a franchise that’s all about lifting a wand and making life easier with the flick of a wrist.
At its core, amidst all that mayhem, this is a movie about election rigging. Really, it is! So if you go to fantasy extravaganzas like this to escape the troubles of reality, you may want to look elsewhere. Sure, the titular creatures can be adorable. Newt Scamander’s stick-bug pal, Pickett, is small and sweet and endlessly resourceful. Teddy the pickpocket platypus is always good for a laugh. There’s a delightfully weird dance sequence involving a bunch of scorpion-like creatures in a dungeon, the rare scene that finds a balance between fun and frights. And the whole movie hinges on the actions of a rare, deer-like animal called a qilin (pronounced chillin, which this film isn’t for a second), who possesses impeccable psychic insight. But “The Secrets of Dumbledore” has weightier matters on its mind, which it tries to convey awkwardly between big, action set pieces and lighthearted bits of physical comedy.
Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, the magizoologist who’s been our conduit into this wizarding world that predates the Potterverse by about 70 years, isn’t even the main character here. He’s a flitty and fidgety cog in the machinery of Law’s young Albus Dumbledore, who hatches schemes within the cozy warmth of various vests and scarves. Dumbledore’s bad romance with burgeoning villain Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen, taking over for a troubled Johnny Depp) eventually bursts because, well, Grindelwald has some questionable ideas about how to deal with Muggles: He wants to eradicate them entirely. “With or without you, I’ll burn down their world, Albus,” he tells Dumbledore over an otherwise lovely tea. The racism of such purebloods, which emerged as a theme in “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” becomes more pronounced here, especially given the setting of 1930s Berlin.
Now, Dumbledore must stop him with the help of Newt, Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt’s assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), Newt’s Muggle baker friend Jacob (Dan Fogler, once again a crucial source of kindness and comic relief), and the poised and powerful Hogwarts professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams, a welcome addition). The tasteful, art deco train where they lay out their plan is a great example of the consistently impressive production design from Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont; the Lower East Side street that contains Jacob’s bakery is another. But nowhere in here is Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, supposedly the love of Newt’s life; her eventual time on screen is so brief, she may not even have bothered visiting the craft service table. Dumbledore also recruits the French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), half-brother of Leta Lestrange, to infiltrate Grindelwald’s band of young, elegantly dressed fascists. Like so many characters here, his role feels underdeveloped, but he is at the center of perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking moment.
Also wedged in is Ezra Miller as Grindelwald minion Credence Barebone, whose true identity is, ostensibly, one of the secrets of Dumbledore. (The other is that ... Dumbledore is gay? Which was hinted at in the second film, and will remain a secret to viewers watching this movie in China.) But significant stakes remain elusive, even in a film that runs well over two hours. Miller brings the requisite unsettling vibe to the role, but his presence is an unfortunate distraction, given the reports of his recent disturbing, off-screen behavior. It’s just one more problem for this bland, Covid-delayed series, which supposedly has two more entire films in the works. It'll take a great deal of powerful magic to pull those off successfully.
Available only in theaters starting tomorrow, April 15th.
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander
Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore
Mads Mikkelsen as Gellert Grindelwald
Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone / Aurelius Dumbledore
Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski
Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein
Callum Turner as Theseus Scamander
Jessica Williams as Eulalie 'Lally' Hicks
Katherine Waterston as Porpentina 'Tina' Goldstein