The first two Fantastic Beasts films captured some of the leftover charm from the Harry Potter series, but none of the dramatic heft. Simply put, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) isn’t as compelling a protagonist as Harry Potter, nor is there a Ron or Hermione to add any texture or humanity to him. Also, Newt doesn’t have a deep spiritual connection to this story’s supervillain, a la Harry and Voldemort. They’re just dudes on opposite sides of the battle. With that said, I’m happy to report that Dumbledore represents a high point for this Potter offshoot. It corrects those previous storytelling flaws by shifting the focus to a much more interesting and complex character–Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), the future headmaster of Hogwarts.
This film–and my review with it–assume you’ve seen the previous Beast installments. It’s probably best if you’ve also covered the Potter cinematic travelogue, but I ain’t here to tell you what to do. As Dumbledore begins, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) has drawn a magical line in the sand. Many sorcerers have joined his quest to purge the world of non-magic users. A war seems inevitable.
In true Potter fashion, Grindelwald’s chief opposition consists of a few plucky underdogs who must foil this force of evil, no matter the long odds. Scamander returns, and has anointed himself a magizoologist, which is basically an animal control officer for impish CGI creatures. He forms an alliance with Dumbledore, one of the most powerful wizards in the world. We learn that Dumbledore was once in love with Grindelwald, and the two formed a blood pact to never harm one another.
This team is rounded out by: Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt’s slightly haughty brother; Lally (Jessica Williams), a gifted Charms professor; Jacob (Dan Folger), a muggle baker. Queenie (Allison Sudol), Jacob’s former girlfriend, abandoned the good guys for Grindelwald’s army at the end of the previous film. Needless to say, things are little awkward for these two.
The plot revolves around a power struggle over who will head the Wizarding World. Grindelwald emerges to seek the office, despite his war crimes. He also manipulates Creedence (Ezra Miller), the abused boy from the previous films, into unleashing his power to harm Dumbledore.
Written by J.K. Rowling and Potter veteran Steve Kloves, Dumbledore features all the kooky imagination we’ve come to expect from this series. Much of the film’s best entertainment value comes from its peripheral charms, whether in the form of murderous crabs, mischievous suitcases, or enchanted neckties that allow their wearer to instantly transport across time and space. And that’s before we get to the magical baby deer that can judge the soul of anyone it encounters.
Of course, none of this unabashed wackiness would mean much without characters who.make sense and able performers to bring them to life. That starts with Law, who brings emotional gravity to the middle-aged Dumbledore. The man we see here has much of the immense talent of the Potter films, but he’s also filled with raw regret and uncertainty. Mikkelsen, who plays urbane cruelty better than any actor working today, infuses Grindelwald with a muted, refined sense of evil. He’s the white glove psychopath. The strong dynamic between these characters provides the series with its deepest emotional hook. Their intermingling love and hate greatly muddies the impending battle for the fate of the world.
I said it earlier, but it bears repeating: Scamander is still a weak center for the franchise. Redmayne plays him with nebbish geekiness, and the screenwriters amplify this by making the character a passive participant in many of the biggest scenes. Too often, Dumbledore, Jacob, or Lally get the big moments to shine, while Scamander is left staring cluelessly. “No one can know everything,” someone curtly tells him. Still, it’d be nicer for the story’s protagonist to drive the story a little more. The real secret is that Dumbledore’s the best thing in the whole damn movie.
Dumbledore may not be great, but it’s still pretty good. The production is absolutely jaw-dropping: Pre-war New York and Berlin get recreated in meticulous (and expensive) detail. James Newton Howard supplies the film with a lush, sweeping score, while also referencing John Williams’ iconic Potter themes. The special effects are magnificent, but you probably knew that already. For all its visual brilliance, the best thing about this third film is we finally have some dramatic stakes. By the time Dumbledore forms a grandfatherly bond with Harry Potter, a subtle sadness lurks behind his eyes. In quietly moving fashion, The Secrets of Dumbledore helps explain why.
142 min. PG-13. HBOMax.