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‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ not so fantastic

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It’s tough to deny the pop cultural impact that the Harry Potter books had on an entire generation, one that grew up alongside that plucky wizard and his friends as they did battle against evil. The subsequent movies only added to the cachet, all while making well over seven billion dollars (yes, with a B) over the course of eight movies.

Hollywood doesn’t walk away from that cash cow.

And so we get the “Fantastic Beasts” series, a kinda-sorta prequel franchise that is based on an ancillary connection to the beloved Potterverse. The first one was fine, the second one was borderline incomprehensible … and now there is another.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” – directed by David Yates from a screenplay by Steve Kloves and Potter creator J.K. Rowling – is yet another effort to wring even more money from the Wizarding World writ large. Despite the controversial departure of Johnny Depp – who played big bad Grindelwald in the first two films – and the continued presence of Rowling and her controversial views, this movie happened.

It's admittedly better than the previous entry – an EXTREMELY low bar to clear – but it still is somewhat lacking in narrative cohesion. The already-muddled mythology is rendered even more difficult to follow by the fractured storyline of this film. That said, there are some good performances here and it’s a fairly solid film in terms of aesthetics (at least until the underwhelming climax). Ultimately, however, it’s a reminder that perhaps the Wizarding World would have been better off ending with Harry Potter’s final adventures.

This new film takes place a few years after the events of the previous film. Our erstwhile hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) seeks to help a pregnant qilin – a mystical beast that can see both the future and the depths of a man’s soul – give birth. However, he is ambushed by Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and others who seek to take the newborn for their own purposes, killing the mother in the process (though unbeknownst to them, the beast birthed twins – Newt saves the younger).

Credence and company take their quarry to their master, the evil wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to exploit the creature’s power for his own gain.

Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is Grindelwald’s match in power, but cannot move directly against him due to a powerful blood oath sworn years ago when the two were close. In an effort to combat Grindelwald’s plan, he recruits a team of his own. There’s Newt, of course, as well as his assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates) and Newt’s auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner); Dumbledore also brings in American charms teacher Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) and the wizard Yusef Kama (William Nadlyam), as well as Newt’s dear friend and regular non-magic dude Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose former lover Queenie (Alison Sudol) has been drawn to Grindelwald’s side by circumstance. Oh, and Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle) is around for reasons that become abundantly clear.

It turns out that Grindelwald seeks the office of Supreme Mugwump, which would place him in charge of the entire wizarding world. And thanks to a series of manipulations both subtle and overt, Grindelwald is able to place himself in the running, even as he and his minions wreak havoc.

It’s up to Newt and the rest to stop Grindelwald before he ascends to the highest seat of magical power and becomes truly unstoppable, able to execute his desire to completely destroy the non-magical world and rule over the wreckage of what remains.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a fairly transparent attempt to continue generating revenue from a franchise whose best days are behind it. While the powers that be will likely be able to make plenty of money from this film (as well as from the all-but-inevitable film or films to follow), there’s an undeniable sense of artistic bankruptcy at play here. The story being told here is unnecessary, and it will only grow more unnecessary with each subsequent outing.

There are things to like here, to be fair. The idea of an awkward weirdo as a hero is a central and effective tenet of the Harry Potter ethos – one borne out by Newt Scamander. Getting a glimpse at the magical world as it existed in the earlier part of the 20th century has its merits, to be sure. And there are absolutely moments of visual splendor and aesthetic excitement scattered throughout.

It isn’t enough.

This story limps along, wildly overinflated to achieve an absolutely unnecessary 142-minute runtime. It is obviously, irritatingly overstuffed – you could lose a half-hour with ease and not lose a single fundamental story point, which tells you all you need to know. The film meanders along, offering the occasional feint at something substantial before darting back into the bloat, content to offer up a handful of decent set pieces in place of real storytelling.

(No spoilers, but that handful most assuredly DOES NOT include the climactic confrontation, a sequence that feels almost deliberately lazy and uninspired in its execution.)

The performances are meh. Redmayne – who has an Oscar, by the way – seems to regret his involvement in this series a little more with every movie. He’s fine, but he’s practically background noise at this point. Law is decent as Sexy Dumbledore, but there’s a joylessness to his performance that is tough to overlook. Mikkelsen is quite good as Replacement Grindelwald; the dude commits to the bit and certainly looks the part. From there, the pickings get slimmer – most everyone is not-terrible, but nothing more than that. The exceptions are Fogler, who is an absolute delight in these films, and Williams, who embraces this opportunity in a way that few of her fellow performers have.

Honestly, the biggest issue with “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is that the film never gives us a reason to actually care about any of it. It is big, empty spectacle, mired in a feeling of crass commercial pointlessness that is impossible to ignore. It’s a film that knows the fans will cough up the cash no matter what, so why worry? Expect the downward spiral to continue going forward.

Consider this spell broken.

[1.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 April 2022 11:50

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