It has been a bumpy start for the Fantastic Beasts series, a Harry Potter spinoff that centers on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who has an affinity for all sorts of creatures with strange abilities. Neither of the first two films managed to capture the allure that the eight Potter films did, with a focus on complex storytelling instead of the basics that made the original series so appealing.
I’m sad to report that the third film, The Secrets of Dumbledore, continues that unfortunate trend, even with Steve Kloves — who wrote all but one of the Harry Potter movies — taking over for J.K. Rowling as screenwriter. The film starts off promising enough, with an intriguing and unusually direct conversation between Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and series villain Gellert Grindlewald (Mads Mikkelsen, taking over for the disgraced Johnny Depp). That’s followed by an exciting scene in which Newt tries to rescue a newborn Qilin, a deer-like creature whose powers are sought by the power hungry.
From there, however, the film devolves into the series’ usual convoluted storytelling. Newt’s romantic interest, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is all-but-missing from the film, but he’s joined by an odd group that includes his friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and a newcomer, American auror Eulalie Hicks (Jessica Williams). They, along with Dumbledore, are enlisted to … well, it’s never quite clear, but it has something to do with keeping Grindlewald away from power. The series’ big bad villain has apparently given up on truly evil deeds and resorted to … (checks notes) … election fraud?
That’s just one of many things that Kloves (who based his screenplay upon an earlier version from Rowling) and director David Yates can never adequately explain. Even worse is that, for a movie called The Secrets of Dumbledore, those secrets aren’t given nearly the import you’d expect. Aside from an enchanted vial that connects Dumbledore with Grindlewald and the fact that he’s gay, neither of which he bothers hiding from other characters, it’s difficult to say what “secrets” the film is supposed to be about.
The filmmakers take the plot down seemingly random detours that don’t always pay off. Characters intersect or reconnect at odd junctures, and subplots have a strange way of stopping and starting in ways that make no sense for the film as a whole. The thinking seems to be that more information is better, but they obviously don’t have the ability to organize everything in a coherent manner.
Since the film isn’t based on any previously published story, they could literally do anything to entertain fans. While there are some fun moments, like a scene where Newt must imitate crabs in order to facilitate an escape, they are few and far between. The film continues the series’ overall dark tone, and even though there is plenty of magic to be found, it never feels magical.
Redmayne, though technically still the lead of the series, takes somewhat of a backseat this time around, which keeps his quirky style of acting from being too annoying. Law is as charismatic as ever, even if his story arc is confusing. Mikkelsen makes for a great replacement of Depp, although the evilness of his character never quite connects. And Williams affects a haughty accent that almost equals Redmayne’s irritating nature.
At this point in the Fantastic Beasts series, you either love or hate the direction the filmmakers have taken the story. As much as I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I am continuously confounded by their inability to make even a halfway entertaining film.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore opens in theaters on April 15.