“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has few surprises to share. It is not a surprise that it is an improvement over its predecessor, the dreadful “Crimes of Grindelwald,” but it is somewhat of one that people continue to show up for this sort of thing.
The plot picks up where the last movie left off and centers on a magical plot to take down the dreaded Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen for reasons that the internet is happy to explain). Meanwhile, the powers that be are engaged in an election that you just know is not going to end well (a half-hearted attempt to play with undercurrents of nationalism lands with a resounding thud). There is a new fantastic beast that looks like a deer but has superpowers. My kingdom for a dragon.
I came to this series as a big Harry Potter fan — books and movies alike. At their best, the films were as enjoyable as anything the studios were putting out. The way Alfonso Cuaron plays with time in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” or the quest elements of the underrated “Goblet of Fire.” They’re hang out movies. Fun with friends. They remind us of our childhoods, or at least the ones we wish we had. The world felt big, and though it could be scary, we need not worry about going through it alone. I’m not sure the creators of "Fantastic Beasts" ever figured out what they wanted to do with this franchise beyond create a franchise, which is much easier to do when you’re piggybacking off the good will of an existing and popular brand. The first film promised something akin to a mystical travelogue before turning into a not terribly deep exploitation of intellectual property. Heck, this movie can’t even decide on a protagonist. It’s certainly not Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), though a case could be made for his trusty pal Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Ezra Miller’s Credence is but an afterthought. Albus Dumbledore, played with charm to spare by Jude Law, is clearly who director David Yates is most interested in, but the film lacks the conviction to truly put his story at the center.
Speaking of Yates, what kind of cursed deal did he make to become the Potter dude? The man has made only one movie not involving Hogwarts since 2007 and was at one point locked in to make the next "Fantastic Beasts" movies as well. I’ve seen reports that Yates is taking a break from the Wizarding World and I can’t help but think that’s for the best for everyone involved.
There are nice touches here and there. I’m quite partial to the Niffler, a gold-crazed creature that reminds me of my own mischievous dog. Redmayne, who has a kindness about him that feels authentic, gets in a nice bit of physical comedy in the movie’s standout set piece. Law and Mikkelsen have real chemistry in their opening scene, which makes the plodding, unfocused, and inert sections that follow all the more disappointing. It is never authentically bad (that would require taking chances), but I was also rarely moved. Shouldn’t a movie all about magic feel a bit, I don’t know, magical? My taste is plenty populist and I’m quick to admit my biases. When I reviewed "The Batman," I really had to investigate whether I liked it so much solely because I can’t help but enjoy Batman punching people. At this point it’s fair to say I’ve disliked as many Star Wars properties as I’ve liked, but I’m incapable of being impartial to a lightsaber. And so Jude Law and Mads Mikkelsen being charming and romantic together? Sort of my thing. I like when good-looking movie stars get to be good-looking movie stars. I enjoyed seeing them up there on screen. I just wish they had more to do, or better yet, had a film that knew what to do with them.
"Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore" will be released in theaters April 15.