There’s plenty of magic in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, but viewers will need a summoning spell to conjure up a tangible plot. The film follows 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—and will apparently be succeeded by two more sequels—and operates on the assumption that the audience has not only seen the prior films, but has read every Harry Potter book on the shelf.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
The Crimes of Grindelwald, which introduced Johnny Depp as murderous wizard Gellert Grindelwald, concluded with a twist involving Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone (he’s a Dumbledore, apparently). This one, replacing Depp with a significantly more compelling Mads Mikkelsen, picks up where we left off. Grindelwald is still threatening the Muggle world and now seeks to ascend the ranks of the International Confederation of Wizards. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is unable to “move against” Grindelwald because the pair, once young lovers, have a blood pact. Instead, Dumbledore tasks Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), American witch Lally (an absolutely delightful Jessica Williams, who should get her own franchise), Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to put a stop to his nemesis.
There’s not really a specific storyline beyond that. The film, directed by David Yates, plays out in a series of magical set pieces that serve to introduce new fantastical creatures or allow the VFX team to indulge in visually-dazzling action sequences. There’s a sub-plot about a tiny deer-like creature called a Qilin, who can see into people’s souls and may be useful in the election if Newt can keep it out of the wrong hands. Queenie (Alison Sudol), Jacob’s former flame, has crossed over the dark side (or has she?) and Newt’s own love interest, Tina (Katherine Waterston), is too busy to be part of this particular ploy to save the world. There’s a lot to keep track off and you’ll be forgiven if, at points, you have no idea what’s going on.
Besides Williams, who steals the show as Lally, the most engaging thing about the film is the dynamic between Law and Mikkelsen, who imbue the wizards’ relationship with a tension-filled history. Unlike the original books and the prior films, The Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t tip-toe around their sexuality. Dumbledore is quick to admit he was once in love with Grindelwald, even if we don’t get to see much of that here. Law, who is forced to spend a lot of the film giving deeply knowing looks, is believable as a wizard whose allegiances are torn and Mikkelsen, who probably should have been cast from the start, embraces his role with a subtle fervor.
The original series of Harry Potter books—and the resulting films—opened up a world with seemingly endless possibilities. While it’s likely best to detach that magical world from its author, She Who Must Not Be Named (who also wrote the screenplay for The Secrets of Dumbledore), there shouldn’t be a lack of engaging stories to find both inside Hogwarts and without. The Fantastic Beasts franchise has been plagued by scandals and the filmmakers have sought to distance them films from their author, along with Depp and now Miller. But those scandals shouldn’t impact the storytelling itself. The Crimes of Grindelwald was overstuffed and somewhat erratic, opening up plot points from the Harry Potter films that felt somewhat disjointed, and that same problem has emerged here. There are apparently two more Fantastic Beasts sequels still to come and it’s yet unclear how the narrative will all come together, despite screenwriter Steve Kloves coming back to apparently fix J.K. Rowling’s initial screenplay.
Visually, there’s a lot to delight in. The production design and VFX, as usual, are top of the line. The climactic finale takes place in Bhutan, the origin place of much of the wizarding world’s magic, and it’s genuinely cool to see how the filmmakers interpret the world of magic in both Berlin, the main setting for the story, and Bhutan. Harry Potter fans will especially enjoy the return to Hogwarts and Hogsmeade Village. But it’s not enough to piece together IP and hope for a great story. The Secrets of Dumbledore has its moments, but the sum is oddly less than its parts.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.