The purely phantasmagorical, often misguided realms of author J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World are making a comeback. Not like they ever really disappeared from the public consciousness, the antics of Harry Potter and his Hogwarts compatriots have remained legendary over the years. Though, perhaps not as much what would precede those seven years of events? The third in its line of lore-building prequels, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore continues the song and dance its pair of predecessors could equally triumph with, then struggle to slug through its own tired plot. As seen in Crimes of Grindelwald, the damage may already have been done. And only certain pieces of the puzzle could be recovered. It’s not so much disappointing, as it is ultimately frustrating and rather arduous.
And yet, director David Yates and his professional cast know just how not to make it completely boring. His seventh time in the chair for Rowling’s collection of tales, the energy is never lost on him or his players. Predominately the ever-investigative magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), cleaning up yet another mess incited by the dangerous Gellert Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen). It begins in the forests of China, Scamander attempts to rescue a mother Qilin while she’s giving birth. One of Grindelwald’s lackeys, the moody Credence (Ezra Miller) stops him in his tracks, reinforcing the necromancer’s advances to become the ruling authority figure in the Wizarding World. An event Scamander and his allies must prevent, while also shuffling through a series of family issues with Dumbledore (Jude Law), questioning his morality, and his loyalty.
As evidenced in flashbacks, both Albus and Gellert have a history as very close friends, their shared experience inadvertently lending to an accidental death. We don’t quite lean too hard on that angle, amounting to nothing more than a lump in the headmaster’s throat, while maintaining a balance between foreboding guilt, and unwavering leadership in the face of complete adversity. Complex emotions which Yates willingly vaults under a stringent microscope.
We’re all clearly making up for a little lost time, after 2018’s events covered too much ground at a rapid pace. We do slow down a bit, thankfully. Perhaps too much as the overall course of movement lacks a firmer follow-through, zipping through a few extra corners to grant each smaller character thread equal time. Be it mending the bond between Newt and brother Theseus (a comically buoyant Callum Turner), the associate voice of reason for assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), or muggle baker Jacob (a steadfast Dan Fogler) attempting to deprogram ex-girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol) from the hypnotic spin of Grindelwald’s overwhelming control. We’re treated to all this, much of it filler, but not far off from Rowling and co-writer Steve Kloves’ fractured sense of whimsy. And that does include an army of sentient crabs guarding their giant queen mother.
The only worthwhile aspects fall with Fogler and Sudol, their chemistry nothing short of crackerjack. With Redmayne, ever the charming nerd looking to do right by his long-time instructor. And with Law, who completes a decent triangle effect with his portrayal of Dumbledore, building on that emotional gravity from before. Even with being shuffled to the back row in Crimes, here we could both see and believe his anxiety. And how that links to whatever connection he and Grindelwald shared in their youth. Mikkelsen is a fair other half to that equation, thinking on his feet while showing legit avarice. While their characters couldn’t quite sustain a deeper friendship, their conflict cuts through all the needless clutter of wizarding politics, and a side hustle around Credence’s backstory, details of which will be left vague here. Miller’s performance equals to a cinematic wallflower, full of ideas, and belabored by a wrenching shyness. Minimize his character, we’d have been saved maybe twenty minutes for flow’s sake.
Yates is essentially the master of his self-inflicted high wire act, therefore. Trying to toe the line between maintaining that offbeat Hogwarts state of being, and just keeping all axles on the ground. Eyes and ears were wide open, as familiar mythical creatures converged with Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont’s continuing visual design, and a typically manifold musical blueprint at the mercy of James Newton Howard (Raya and the Last Dragon). But those touches, those homely nuggets of nostalgia can only do so much to keep the core of this one installment level.
I have no doubt the fandom is as strong as ever, maybe with numbers slowed down a touch. Fantastic Beasts may be the next logical step to continuing Potter’s Legacy, but by no means is it a successor. It wouldn’t be worthy of the title anyway. Secrets of Dumbledore does correct a few mistakes its immediate precursor willingly committed without consequence, but it can’t completely overhaul a franchise whose overall ineptitude bears an ongoing frustration. Here, it can be soothed somewhat by its characters earning a deeper grip on Rowling’s lore. Not completely, but enough to reach the (not quite?) finish line. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore opens in theaters April 15, in some locations as early as 2PM that Thursday; rated PG-13 for some fantasy action/violence; 142 minutes.