Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore review: Confundo

If there’s one thing Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore makes abundantly clear, it’s this: The Wizarding World is a confusing place.

We’ve now had eight films of adventures with Harry Potter and his pals, two films in the Fantastic Beasts prequel series, and now a third, director David Yates’s Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. That’s a lot of mythology and world-building covered, but even after the 11th installment of the franchise, creator J.K. Rowling’s universe can be as perplexing for outsiders within that world as it is for the audience.

Directed by Yates from a script penned by Rowling and Oscar nominee Steve KlovesThe Secrets of Dumbledore finds “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) dealing with the explosive fallout from the events of the prior film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. As villainous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) continues to seek the subjugation of non-magic users by wizards and witches, Newt is once again recruited by brilliant wizard Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to thwart Grindelwald’s plans.

In order to challenge Grindelwald, however, Dumbledore will need to confront the sins of his family’s past and his relationship with the dark wizard, with whom he shares a powerful bond since their teenage years together.

jude law and the cast of fantastic beasts: the secrets of dumbledore gather in a large hall.

Joining Scamander this time around is his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and a cadre of additional allies, including Newt’s friend, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a non-magic user he met during the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film. Led by Dumbledore, the group finds themselves opposed by Grindelwald’s circle of allies, including the traumatized Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) who may or may not be related to Dumbledore, and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a telepath whose forbidden love for Jacob pushed her to ally with the dark wizard.

That might seem like a lot of storylines and relationships to keep track of, but it’s only the tip of the magical iceberg. Over the course of the film’s lengthy, 142-minute running time, the story introduces a long list of new concepts, characters, and geopolitical relationships to Rowling’s Wizarding World that make it nearly as complicated as, well… the real world.

On the (sadly) familiar side, corrupt government officials, rigged elections, and the weaponization of nationalism and xenophobia by right-wing extremists all factor into Grindelwald’s ascension. He’s also aided by various loopholes in international magical law, and some elements governing the power structure of the Wizarding World that conveniently play to Newt’s strengths. Their globe-spanning adventure takes both heroes and villains around the world, from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan to pre-World War II Germany, introducing the vastly different dynamics between the magical and non-magical communities in each region.

eddie redmayne, dan fogler, and the cast of fantastic beasts: the secrets of dumbledore walk down a dark hallway.

Blending all of those complicated concepts and magical goings-on into real-world history (like the rise of fascism in pre-WWII Germany, for example) to create the alternate timeline of Rowling’s franchise comes at a cost, though. What was an already convoluted narrative carried over from The Crimes of Grindelwald becomes even more so during The Secrets of Dumbledoreand occasionally leaves the film feeling less like a magical adventure and more like a study of global sociopolitical movements in a fantasy world.

Given that the Fantastic Beasts films are intended to be a more mature expansion of the kid-friendly Harry Potter universe, the move toward more adult themes makes sense — but the degree to which the tone shifts (and the sheer number of complicated concepts it tries to tackle) often feels like several steps too many, too quickly, even if it’s headed in an intriguing direction.

The general sense of confusion that fills The Secrets of Dumbledore isn’t enough to outshine some fine performances by the cast. Although it’s understandable that Newt would grow more acclimated to the world over time, it’s a bit disappointing to see the insecurities and quirks that made Redmayne’s portrayal of him so unique replaced by a more traditional hero role. Still, Redmayne is a phenomenal actor and manages to make Newt feel special even when he’s engaging in the sort of heroic acts that would’ve seemed out of character two films ago.

Fortunately, the decision to fade Newt into the background a bit more with The Secrets of Dumbledore ends up creating more room for some of the supporting cast to shine.

jessica williams and callum turner stand back-to-back in a street, wands raised.

Fogler’s role in the franchise has grown with each installment, and with The Secrets of Dumbledoreit begins to feel as if the story is as much Jacob’s tale as Newt’s. Jacob began as an audience surrogate of sorts, offering a No-Maj / Muggle perspective on all of the magical shenanigans unfolding around him. His part in the story has grown deeper and more layered over time, though, and the latest film gives him as much of a part to play in Newt’s journey as any wizard or witch. It’s a welcome shift, as Fogler always makes the best of the screen time he’s given and keeps things light and authentic when the magical drama gets a bit thick.

Taking over the part of Grindelwald after Johnny Depp’s departure from the franchise, Mikkelsen doesn’t miss a beat. Not only does he give the dark wizard an unsettling charisma that makes him an entertaining-but-threatening foil for Newt and his pals, but his chemistry with Law also sells the relationship between Grindelwald and Dumbledore that’s such a big part of this chapter in the saga. Unfortunately, anyone who hasn’t been following behind-the-scenes events might be confused by the casting change for Grindelwald, which isn’t given any explanation in the film. If any franchise could get away with easily explaining such a change away, it’s this one, where shape-changing spells and potions are common tools at a wizard or witch’s disposal.

mads mikkelsen, as the dark wizard gellert grindelwald, aims his wand.

In supporting roles, Sudol and Jessica Williams, who reprise their roles as Queenie and Eulalie “Lally” Hicks, respectively, also deliver standout performances, but don’t get nearly enough time to develop their otherwise entertaining characters more.

On the flip side, Miller’s portrayal of traumatized magic-wielder Credence has been comically over-the-top since the first Fantastic Beasts film’s third act, and his emo wizard continues to feel like a caricature of sorts in The Secrets of Dumbledore. For a character who so much seems to hinge on narratively, Credence never seems to demand your attention, and it makes his implied importance to the story seem far too forced.

The Fantastic Beasts films have all featured spectacular visual effects and memorable performances from Redmayne, Fogler, and other cast members, but with each installment, they’ve become increasingly bogged down in their own mythology and world-building. The Secrets of Dumbledore ultimately delivers a more satisfying story than its predecessor, The Crimes of Grindelwaldbut rather than easing off the pace at which it introduces new concepts and lore, it shifts into overdrive, peppering the audience with a fresh multitude of complicated themes that distract from the main narrative and its core characters instead of supporting them.

It’s a shame, because there are some really intriguing elements in the Fantastic Beasts franchise that beg to be explored further, if only it would slow down long enough to do so.

Directed by David Yates, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore premieres April 15 in theaters.

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