By Elias Savada.
Doesn’t rise to the heights it could. It’s a case of middle child syndrome, or someone’s just tired.”
Even a lesser rate Harry Potter spin-off such as Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore — the latest in J.K. Rowling’s post-Harry Potter series — should be enough for most Hogwarts enthusiasts to feed their latest wizarding fix. With most parts of the ensemble cast and a good many in the behind-the-camera technical team reuniting, it’s a smooth, mostly charming, and generally painless way to spend 2+ hours at the Muggleplex. Satisfaction is not guaranteed.
The cinematic magic continues to fade from revered Professor Aldus Dumbledore’s wand as a follow-up to the series’ grim first sequel The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), as the cast is set adrift in a meandering script (another by Rowling, in cahoots with longtime Potter scribe and Fantastic Beasts producer Steve Kloves). Those bumps in the over-ripe plot are handled with the usual stable hand of director David Yates, but with two more films planned in the five-film sweep of pre-Potter world life, maybe the filmmakers can sit down and decide how to spread the cheer without another overlong stay. This middle stanza is, however, definitely (but not completely) more child friendly. Maybe too much so.
Naturally, there’s still a bad wizard afoot, and the sly/nasty Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing the jettisoned Johnny Depp, who is instead scheduling a live performance in a Virginia courthouse in his battle of finger-pointing with ex-wife Amber Heard). He’s set on domination in his magical domain, plotting a full out war on all of Muggledom. Adding a bit of topical irony, the plot involves a rigged election, with a contested outcome. It doesn’t look good for humankind if he succeeds. Dumbledore (Jude Law) knows that, and he’s got his small army of resourceful merryfolk on tap to help turn the tide. There’s nervous Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his older brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt’s noble assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), watchful witch Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams), a French-African wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and that lovable fish-out-of-wizard-water (and baker from Queens, New York) Jacob (Dan Fogler). For this particular human, the story’s quite personal, as the love of his life, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) has become a muddled member of the opposition. All provide a variety of tricks to the Oceans 7-ish sleight of hand deception as they battle wits with Grindelwald and his conniving minions, including Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), one of the secrets alluded to by the film’s subtitle (a better one might have been The Groups’ Back Together).
As fantasies go, the Rowling universe generally offers a well-produced, good-looking vision of an enchanting, quirky way of life. The film does all that within its literal realm. Cinematographer George Richmond is a newcomer, taking over for Philippe Rousslot, and he does a good job here. James Newton Howard’s return as composer merits attention for his stirring score, offering bits of whimsy when needed. Others back in the fold include production designers Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, editor Mark Day, and visual effects wizard Christian Mänz. Don’t go looking for something all that different than what you’ve seen before.
The main plot revolves around a new critter called a Qilin, a glowing dragon/horse beast with the ability to look into a person’s soul and know if they’ve been naughty or nice. Maybe Santa could use a few of these on his next sleigh ride? I suspect there might be oodles of stuffed versions of these under many a Muggle’s Christmas Tree.
Between saving one of these young creatures from the grasp of the Grindelwald and his nefarious attempts to become the Supreme Mugwump of the International Conference of Wizards, there are a host of smaller subplots that pad the film through its undramatic, completely expected, ending.
The film isn’t a total bore. Not by a long shot. There are some terrific sequences here that salvage its middling approach. One involves Theseus and a host of baby Manticores. Think scorpions mated with crabs. Full-sized ones (140 + feet tall) guard the prison where Mr. T finds himself. Momma M. can provide quite a sting. Her hand-sized offspring, hundreds of which act as toy-like guards-in-training, end up providing a hilarious respite from the rest of the film, as Newt, on a rescue mission for his sibling, realizes the little babies like to dance.
Yes, it’s visually stunning (again), but Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t rise to the heights it could. It’s a case of middle child syndrome, or someone’s just tired.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).