In theory, a “young Dumbledore” movie would address some of the “Fantastic Beasts” shortcomings, providing a more dynamic anchor than the shy and halting Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Moreover, Rowling has added more A-list help this time around, teaming not only with director David Yates but co-writer Steve Kloves, another veteran of the Harry Potter franchise.
Still, the storyline essentially handcuffs Dumbledore (Jude Law), or at least ties his wand behind his back for too much of the movie, by virtue of his romantic bond with the evil Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, ably stepping in for Johnny Depp), who — in classic authoritarian fashion — intends to take over the magical world and wage war against Muggles. (The references to their past relationship are relatively chaste, but were apparently still too much for Chinese censors.)
Because Dumbledore can’t directly confront Grindelwald and his minions, he must recruit not only Newt but an eclectic group of wizards and witches, as well as Newt’s Muggle pal Jacob (Dan Fogler). But other than Jessica Williams’ enhanced role as Eulalie (Lally) Hicks (sporting a ’40s gangster accent that takes some getting used to), they’re a fairly nondescript bunch.
Foremost, the latest “Fantastic Beasts” unfolds with no great sense of urgency, sending the gang on a series of adventures and detours building toward an anticipated showdown to thwart Grindelwald’s plans.
Having played villains in James Bond, Marvel and now Harry Potter movies, Mikkelsen advances his bad-guy Hall of Fame credentials, and when he sneers, “With or without you, I’ll burn down their world,” he introduces a sense of menace that outshines most everything else in the film.
Yet even with that contribution and the characteristically impressive production design and effects, “Fantastic Beasts” seldom sparks to life. In hindsight, the real misstep might have come when Warner Bros. (like CNN, part of Warner Bros. Discovery) let Rowling outline a five-movie format, as opposed to at most a more conventional trilogy, although Variety has reported the fourth and fifth installments could depend on how well “Secrets of Dumbledore” performs at the box office.
Whatever the commercial verdict, the creative one delivers another mixed bag that tempers enthusiasm for more, barring promises to both pick up the pace and enhance Law’s role in a more definitive manner.
Otherwise, like “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” “Secrets of Dumbledore” is handsomely done but ultimately too much of a dumble-snore. And somehow, its appealing pieces, old and new, again add up to a less-than-magical movie.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” premieres in US theaters on April 15. It’s rated PG-13.