‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ Summons More Darkness Than Magic

Fans of the “Harry Potter” franchise will walk into “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” expecting another fun entry in the Wizarding World saga. They will instead be met with an entertaining, but rather cluttered, heavy analogy about fascist politics that feels like a set-up for the next movie. This entry in the Potter prequels also drops with quite a trail of controversy. There was the removal of Johnny Depp from the roster following accusations of domestic abuse. Author J.K. Rowling, creator of the “Harry Potter” novels and screenwriter of the “Fantastic Beasts” films, has inspired debate and anger over her stances concerning the transgender community. And just recently, co-star Ezra Miller was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. If none of these headline-grabbing events ever took place, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” would still fall short of its predecessors with a story that feels like it’s still cooking, yet nonetheless features many memorable sights and creatures.

We’re eased into the new casting with an opening scene involving Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and aspiring magical fascist revolutionary, Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen taking over from Depp). Dumbledore tries to persuade Grindelwald from pursuing his goals of taking over the wizarding world and eventually sparking a war with the “non-magic” people (or Muggles for you Potter fans). Dumbledore can’t stop him directly because of a blood pact that the two made long ago when they were lovers. Now he must assemble a team including this series’ lead, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), an operative of the British Ministry of Magic. New characters added to the team include Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams), a charms professor at Hogwarts, and Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), brother of Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who died in “The Crimes of Grindelwald.” “No-Maj” baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is also back, hoping to rescue his love, Legilimen Queenie (Alison Sudol), who was seduced by Grindelwald’s message and has joined his movement. They must first try and stop Grindelwald’s attempts at becoming the next president of the International Confederation of Wizards.

It is hard to deny that like the superior “Harry Potter” films, “Fantastic Beasts” as a franchise is still a well-produced spectacle. “The Secrets of Dumbledore” looks fantastic, continuing the prequels’ ‘30s art deco meets fantasy aesthetic. The opening conversation between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is set in an elegant restaurant fit for a noir. One of the first stops Dumbledore’s team makes is in Berlin at the German Ministry of Magic, which is an Orwellian building with fascistic banners and crowds supporting respective candidates for the next leader of the wizarding world. Director David Yates (who directed four of the “Harry Potter” movies) and cinematographer George Richmond blend the look of a period thriller with the supernatural spirit of the wider franchise. Other memorable sights include a frightening prison cavern where Newt has to find Theseus in a lair full of crab-like creatures you can trick into swiveling with you, before a giant beast attacks with its massive stinger. Much of the plot revolves around Newt needing to protect a Qilin, a sweet deer-like magical creature that Grindelwald seeks to manipulate the International Confederation election. 

The major, though somewhat brief, action sequences are also a delight with plenty of wand sparks, slow motion saves and tricks. Plenty of easter eggs are scattered around for “Harry Potter” fans as well. But like the previous movie, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” suffers from wanting to cram lots of plot and set-up. Little resolved or even explained, because we are expected to come back for the fourth movie. Once again we only get mere hints at the broader story between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. They are both deprived of a real reunion or showdown. Although, it seems Dumbledore is the one more haunted by the relationship, since he mentions the past more often than Grindelwald, who is solely focused on attaining power. Newt is left just running around figuring out how to protect the Qilin. He still pines for Queenie’s sister, Tina (Katherine Waterston), who played such a prominent role in the last two entries and is practically absent in this one. Queenie’s own turn to the dark side is rather stale since little is done with the character, other than having her stand in darkened corners looking worried. We are given some answers to the origin of Grindelwald’s orphan acolyte Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), but after the gasp-inducing way his identity was exposed at the end of “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the results here are anti-climactic. There is some intriguing emotional material with Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth (Richard Coyle), and his connection to Credence, yet it also closes on a “To Be Continued” feel.

Part of what makes “The Secrets of Dumbledore” drag when it isn’t diving into magical adventure is the nature of the plot. Rowling, who is joined by “Harry Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves, wants to explore heavy political subject matter like the rise of fascist strongmen, social discrimination (wizards vs non-magics), while stretching out all the threads involving individual romances, family links, lost siblings and tying it all to the grander Potterverse. Maybe Rowling also wanted to play with the historical links between fascism and occultism when Grindelwald carries out strange rituals in what looks like a Bavarian castle. Simply put, “Fantastic Beasts” as a film series wants to say many things without focusing on one. What we’re left with are memorable single moments. Mads Mikkelsen was a great choice to replace Depp. He has the necessary dark charisma for the role and looks chilling when carried by a wave of supporters during a rally. There are traces here of his sophisticated serial killer in the show “Hannibal.” Mikkelsen also generates great chemistry with Jude Law, who brings the measured, professorial balance. Dan Fogler still steals scenes as the self-doubting baker who loves Queenie, so he’s willing to jump into a situation totally out of his league.

A movie like “The Secrets of Dumbledore” still boasts such excellent production values that it’s never boring. It has great visual style and a rich score by James Newton Howard, who makes good use of John Williams’s classic theme as well. What we’re left with is the restlessness of wanting to know what the aims of this story are. Prequels and even sequels to major franchises always struggle with the need to justify themselves. George Lucas’s “Star Wars” entries in the 2000s at least promised to show us how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. The first “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” had the charm of its critters and was a nice extra serving of the “Harry Potter” world. With this third entry, arriving four years after the last one, the narrative is starting to struggle with maintaining real appeal. As a general popcorn experience it has crafty moments to offer but the next time around the franchise needs to really justify why we should maintain interest beyond the controversies of its makers.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” releases April 15 in theaters nationwide.