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‘The Secrets of Dumbledore’ Review: On cruise control through the wizarding world

The latest adventure through the wizarding world, led by Mads Mikkelsen and Jude Law, feels unsure about the overarching story it's telling.

TEXAS, USA — Chaos reigns and cute critters skitter through the global wizarding world in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore."

If that sounds like a generally similar premise to this impressively uninvolving movie’s two prior installments, it’s because we've now gotten a third straight film of sluggish rising action that – hypothetically, eventually, maybe? – will climax at some point in Warner Brothers’ five-movie masterplan. I’ll make like a Hufflepuff and keep an open mind, but at this point it’s hard not to see the overeager franchise blueprinting for the rebounding Avada Kedavra killing curse it might have been this whole time. 

“The Secrets of Dumbledore'' continues the deliberately unfurling story of magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore’s (Jude Law) war against on-the-rise dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, technically the third actor to step in the villain’s shoes thanks to on-screen and off-screen twists). It’s as reliant on special effects and the curiously colorless palette of modern blockbusters as you’d expect, though unlike “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” just one hand or hippogriff paw is needed to count the number of major set pieces. 

A major reason why: “The Secrets of Dumbledore'' is child-oriented fantasy operating on a political-espionage bent. Grindelwald is steadily accruing power in isolation, and working to undermine an upcoming election to thrust him into the position of wizarding-world leader (the emphasized mention of “peaceful transfer of power” earned a raised eyebrow from me), which is ultimately decided less by electoral vote than by a magical Bambi’s ability to see into a person’s soul. Scamander, Dumbledore and company are out to prevent that, by sneaking behind enemy lines and taking advantage of some helpful plot loopholes. One might be better equipped to be thrilled by the blending of genres if the film – written by Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling – could effectively locate a truce between the two target audiences. 

Ironically, the more memorable Potter movies were better-suited for that tonal game, despite being set in a school. Even “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was convincingly transporting at times. This threequel struggles in those ambitions. The beasts? Adorable, moderately fantastic, awkwardly MacGuffinized. Dumbledore? Law is mysterious and endearing enough in the role, even if he lacks Michael Gambon’s vital quirkiness. His secrets? Muted in their delivery, as if the movie didn’t trust what it was selling, or otherwise knows the real drama lies in whether the series will even get to five movies. That soft-spokenness is often literal and hard to ignore; were the actors directed to whisper their lines in order to feign a sense of gravitas? 

In reality the whole endeavor feels restrained, as if “Secrets of Dumbledore” were pulling back, back, further back in a desperate attempt to recapture the bigger picture. When your franchise’s naming convention feels like it's been through more of a journey than the story being told, perhaps an amount-that-should-not-be-named number of movies was an ill proposition to begin with.

On a basic franchise filmmaking level, it also feels strangely detached from the prior entries. Ostensibly key players from those movies, like Ezra Miller’s Credence and Katherine Waterson’s Tina, have been unceremoniously relegated to B- and C-character status in order for a bloated ensemble to expand once again. I don’t anticipate you’d be lost if you watched “The Secrets of Dumbledore'' without catching the last two movies, however (especially if you’re familiar with general Potterworld lore), but while that makes the whole endeavor accessible, it also makes the overarching stakes feel dispiritingly less loose-fitting. There’s some charm if you know where to look, and I smiled at the sincerity by which Redmayne dances with a herd of tiny scorpions during a breakout sequence only for their decidedly larger mother to pop up, but it’s also strange that Newt, the supposed anchor of these movies, is almost completely inconsequential here. 

Meanwhile, the extent of Dumbledore’s same-sex romantic history with Grindelwald is threadbare at best – an issue reflecting larger issues of modern American moviemaking – but it does manage to squeeze a jolt into the proceedings when they matter most. Among the ideas these movies have so far touched on without fully delving into: when magical contracts and oaths go from being convenience to torturous source of regret.

The director’s chair is once again filled by David Yates, continuing a long and nearly exclusive tenure within this property of wizards, witches and wands; he jumped onboard with 2007’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” an entire Hollywood era ago. Those 15 years have seen his role shift from franchise closer to franchise conservationist. “The Secrets of Dumbledore’s” script may be a step up from Wizarding-World-worst “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” but this universe's aesthetic has never been in more dire need of a fixer-upper charm. The most obvious barometer of success might be their level of invention, but what’s forgotten in that equation is that the best of the Harry Potter films had warmth and wit to spare—magic of a different kind. 

“The Secrets of Dumbledore,” by comparison, is the last thing these adventures can afford to be: Fairly ordinary. 

"Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore" is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action/violence. It's in theaters now. Runtime: 2 hours, 22 minutes. 

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by David Yates




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