After four years, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has arrived, and it is a slog more than an event. The long-awaited third installment of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World sub-franchise is less clogged with distracting detail than its immediate predecessor, but even a more refined plot can’t save the two-hour-plus film from feeling like an endurance test.
Some of the stress comes from the behind-the-scenes drama leading up to the film’s April 15 theatrical release. Johnny Depp, who played the franchise’s villain Gellert Grindelwald in the second installment, was embroiled in domestic abuse allegations made by his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Ezra Miller, who plays Credence Barebone, has been facing their own issues after appearing to choke a fan outside a club and, most recently, attacking people at a bar in Hawaii and allegedly breaking into a random couple’s hotel room. Then there is the series progenitor, Rowling, who has spent the past two years aggressively reaffirming her anti-trans views.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
More focused but not any less disappointing.
It’s hard not to think of these real-world issues when watching The Secrets of Dumbledore, which pulls its major plot points from present-day political struggles. While the film’s moral concerns still boil down to the battle between good and evil, Rowling, who penned the screenplay with Steve Kloves, uses an upcoming Wizarding World election to up the stakes of this conflict. To be good is to fight for the preservation of democracy, to “do what is right, not what is easy,” as Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) intimates at one point in the film. To be evil is to do the opposite.
The Secrets of Dumbledore opens with a chilly encounter between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen), the avatars of this moral conflict. They meet in a frosty, almost palatial café, where seemingly unaware non-magic people buzz around them. Over tea, the two warring and heartbroken wizards review their past and relitigate betrayals. Grindelwald’s commitment to dominating the world of wizarding and starting a war with non-magic people leaves Dumbledore in a tricky position. The future Hogwarts headmaster must stop his nemesis and former lover, but a pact made decades ago prevents the two from directly fighting each other.
That’s where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the series’ diffident magizoologist, comes in. Dumbledore conscripts Newt to help him assemble a team that will defeat Grindelwald. The ragtag team is a familiar group, made entirely of characters from previous installments: Newt’s assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), his friend and Muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), Leta Lestrange’s brother Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and the Charms professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams).
They devise a plan with several moving parts, their goal to confuse Grindelwald, who can see into the immediate future. If the group can outwit the sharp wizard, then, Dumbledore hopes, they stand a chance of saving the world. The plan to confuse requires that the skeptical team, helmed by a reluctant Newt, trust in one another. A similar trust is required of viewers, who after two drawn-out installments must trust that this third movie will inspire faith in an unsteady series.
Compared with the previous two films, Secrets of Dumbledore feels more like a Harry Potter film than a Fantastic Beasts one. While a few magical creatures make appearances — one is even central to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s plans — they are by no means the anchor. This installment revolves around Dumbledore, a more interesting character than the series’ purported hero, Newt . That shift focuses the film’s narrative, but it doesn’t do much for those of us trying to figure out the purpose of the series.
Secrets of Dumbledore is not without its charms, though. Director David Yates (who helmed four Potter films and the entirety of Fantastic Beasts thus far) returns with a formidable crew that includes director of photography George Richmond, production designers Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, editor Mark Day, costume designer Colleen Atwood and composer James Newton Howard to re-create the rich, textured Wizarding World. The battle scenes — slowed down and shot from a variety of angles — add tension and show off the franchise’s technical precision and prowess. The magic creatures are carefully constructed and the world within Newt’s briefcase remains dazzling.
As Newt and his friends travel throughout the Wizarding World — a journey that takes them from New York and Berlin to Bhutan — they come to understand Grindelwald’s influence and the allure of his vision. (His promise that under his reign wizards will be able to live and love freely brought Jacob’s love, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, over to the dark side in the last film.)
As Grindelwald organizes a campaign to become the president of the International Confederation of Wizards, he morphs into a fascist figure, one whose exclusionary stances and hateful rhetoric touch and embolden a frustrated mass. But it’s hard to buy Rowling and Kloves’ screenplay, which stays on the surface of this metaphor. A viewer who’s attuned to the narrative’s resemblance to real life might struggle to move past the irony of a writer like Rowling touting messages about humanity, love and radical acceptance given her recent public comments.
If Secrets of Dumbledore has a reason for existing, it’s perhaps as evidence of coping with disenchantment. It’s difficult to remain enamored by the Wizarding World when its production is mired in controversy and its creator frequently espouses dangerously myopic views. This inevitably influences perceptions of the work, revealing, at least to this critic, just how obsessed these films are with binaries — good and evil, poor and rich, love and hate, light and dark. But life, like storytelling, is far more complicated, and that’s a lesson the franchise would be wise to embrace.