‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ casts a revival spell on the wizarding franchise
Entertaining Harry Potter prequel buries memories of the ‘Grindelwald’ disaster.
The third time’s the Disarming Charm.
That’s one of the classes they teach in the second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, don’t ya know, and while we take only a brief excursion to the future learning institution of Harry Potter and friends in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” the third of the five planned prequels is a relatively lightweight but still consistently entertaining and magical journey that rights the ship after the utter convoluted disaster titled “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (2018) and feels more connected to the larger HPU (Harry Potter Universe).
“Grindelwald” was an overloaded chamber of confusing subplots and was the worst of the entire “Harry Potter” franchise, but in “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” the characters actually take a moment now and then to explain what’s going on to each other—and thus to the audience—and while that device can be quite injurious to an epic movie (hello, “Eternals”), it’s actually quite welcome here, as we can sit back in our seats and settle in for the adventure without having the nagging feeling we should be taking notes.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves. Rated PG-13 (for some fantasy action/violence). Running time: 136 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
“The Secrets of Dumbledore” picks up the story in the 1930s, several years after the events of “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” with a visually stunning and heartbreakingly melancholy meeting between Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp) in an upscale café where these former friends and romantic partners agree they’ll always disagree and there’s nothing they can do about it. The nefarious and scheming Grindelwald lusts for an all-out war against the Muggles, while Dumbledore believes the born-to-magic and the humans can co-exist peacefully, side by side. These two great wizards are bound by a pact that prevents them from directly waging battle against one another—so Dumbledore calls on the magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and a somewhat motley crew of associates to do his bidding.
Newt’s team includes his older brother Theseus (Callum Turmer), a diplomat with the British Ministry of Magic; his loyal assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), who is clearly in love with her boss; Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a French pure-blood wizard of Senegalese ancestry, who is mourning and filled with anger over the death of his sister, Leta Lestrange, in “The Crimes of Grindelwald”; the charismatic, American-born, Charms professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams), and the Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose love, Queenie (Alison Sudol), has crossed over to the dark side and is now a member of Grindelwald’s camp.
At the International Confederation of Wizards in Berlin, Grindelwald is absolved of his crimes and sways the masses with his fiery, anti-Muggle rhetoric. (Mikkelsen, sporting a Hitler-esque haircut and leaning into the Euro-villain role, delivers a more chilling and more effective performance than Depp’s over-the-top interpretation of Grindelwald). Meanwhile, we learn some revealing and heart-wrenching truths about the hot-headed and menacing Credence (Ezra Miller), and there’s a twist involving not one but two hatching phoenixes known as Qilins (pronounced “chillen”), who hold the key to the upcoming Wizarding World Election.
The best way to thwart the seemingly unbeatable Grindelwald is to confuse him with misdirection, and Dumbledore concocts a plan in which Newt and his team will each carry an identical suitcase—but only one of those suitcases will contain a pure and magical Qilin. This leads to some well-choreographed sequences with slapstick payoffs, with Fogler’s Jacob scoring the most laughs.
With director David Yates, cinematographer George Richmond, the production design and special effects teams, costume designer extraordinaire Colleen Atwood and veteran composer James Newton Howard adding invaluable contributions, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a great-looking film combining extravagant, real-world location shots with wondrous CGI. Still, the pyrotechnics never overwhelm the true joys of this story, i.e., the myriad of set pieces in which wizards and witches and Muggles alike have the room and time to tell their stories, to mend old fences or renew old rivalries, to perhaps reach closure and reconciliation before it’s too late.
With Eddie Redmayne lending his considerable aw-shucks charms as the mild-mannered but steel-willed Newt Scamander, and an outstanding supporting ensemble led by Mads Mikkelsen, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, William Nadylam and Jessica Williams, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” casts a number of bewitching spells, not the least of which is making us forget about “The Crimes of Grindelwald.”