Another ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ not so fantastic
No one really cares about the secrets of Dumbledore. (Spoiler alert: he’s gay.) But the suits at Warner Brothers are in too deep to avoid releasing Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third or maybe even—depending on its box office—the last installment of an originally-planned but already-sputtering quintology depicting the rising threat of Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). This lively but disposable yarn stands perpetually in the shadow of the far more revered saga of Harry Potter, the rich, urgent fairy-tale Bildungsroman that Millennials supersized into mythic status.
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J.K. Rowling’s epic seven-part series chronicled the beloved Boy Who Lived as he improbably helps thwart evil, prejudice and intolerance amid the backdrop of a looming fascist state. Fantastic Beasts enlists the not-beloved magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he improbably helps thwart evil, prejudice and intolerance amid the backdrop of a looming fascist state. Meet the new wizard, same as the old wizard.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Mads Mikkelsen
Running time: 142 mins
Seriously? We’re hanging an entire chronicle of existential despair around the neck of the Wizarding World’s Dr. Dolittle? Hinging story beats on animal behavior is a forced conceit to justify Scamander’s central role, one which frankly feels more and more marginalized in the face of the far more interesting but dramatically short-changed relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.
“We were young,” sighs Dumbledore about his old lover. “We were going to transform the world.” The blood-pact pendant that hangs on him like an albatross and prevents him from ever attacking Grindelwald hints at deeper personal fault lines. But there’s no time to dawdle on emotions when a parade of characters need their screen time, including “I’m just a schmo” Queens native No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), spurned secret Dumbledore nephew Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), and Jessica Williams as American charms professor Eulalie Hicks, who inexplicably talks in a sassy Eartha Kitt purr.
Overpopulated as it is, the script co-authored by Potter vet Steve Kloves is otherwise fairly streamlined, sidestepping the dramatic mistakes of the overplotted previous film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The film even swaps out pop-culture exile Johnny Depp for reliably menacing Danish heavy Mikkelsen. His rise from shady criminal type to acceptable electoral candidate due to government announcements of “insufficient evidence,” along with his trash talk about muggles being “animals” and “vermin,” have heavy-handed resonance in the age of Trump. They are more intentionally supposed to echo Hitler’s rise to power—much of the film’s political intrigue happens in 1932 Berlin—although, curiously, those equally chilling non-magical events don’t ever intrude.
Simplistic eliding of complex themes? That’s okay, because Nifflers. The Fantastic Beasts franchise knows that its bread is buttered with generous dollops of fan service. So it throws in a few new adorably cuddly Nifflers, as well as a mystical Chinese dragon-deer called a Qilin, passenger trains with port keys, plus visits to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts complete with a Minerva McGonagall cameo, a trip to the Room of Requirement, and a Slytherin prank involving a cockroach cluster. There’s even a certain fiery phoenix circling the skies.
Greed is the only reason I can think of that we have this mostly harmless, superficially entertaining but naggingly superfluous film. Greed, as well as a misguided doubt that the original Harry Potter books and movies won’t sustain their popularity with every new generation of muggles. It’s too much of a good thing, and a dilution of a legacy brand. If only Hermione Granger could pull out her wand and cast a forgetfulness charm on the whole endeavor. Obliviate!