[Inhales] OK, right, so when last we left Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the socially awkward magical zoologist renowned as a scholar of fantastic beasts (and not coincidentally, where to find them!), he was preparing — along with Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), hot-for-teacher Hogwarts’ hunk and future Harry Potter mentor — to take on the evil wizard/ex-Dumbledore lover Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), as well as Grindelwald’s partners in crime Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a New Yawk-accented witch who you might remember converted to the dark side in order to save her soulmate, the baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), though that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still love him or that he won’t join up with Newt and Newt’s Ministry-of-Magic mucky-muck brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), as well as Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), the kinda-sorta brother of the Scamander siblings’ mutual love interest Leta Lestrange, a surname that’s undoubtedly familiar to you because [exhales] [passes out]
This is where audiences find themselves upon entering The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third Fantastic Beasts entry that both illustrates and further underlines the difference between franchises then and now. All of the above information is either as well known to you as your own family history, or means absolutely nothing to you whatsoever. A moviegoer has to be a scholar in the now-convoluted cosmology that powers these Potterverse expansion-pack prequels or abandon all hope of understanding a fraction of what’s happening — and even a lot of die-hard Harryheads may find their hippocampus getting seriously taxed while trying to catch up. Better cue your YouTube recaps ASAP.
But back when J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular Potter novels were being adapted into an equally beloved film series, which then helped birth an intellectual-property bonanza, the adventures of the boy with lightning-bolt scar wasn’t just a pop-culture lingua franca. Their hero’s-journey narratives were also accessible to outsiders in a way that these Fantastic Beasts spectacles simply aren’t. The new movies are built primarily for those who want for nothing more than endless references, footnotes, in-jokes, Easter eggs, cute callbacks, breadcrumbs and vague shapes of things to come. There’s a high degree of pedigree involved, with in-house Potter director David Yates calling the shots and longtime writer Steve Kloves sharing screenplay credit with Rowling. Yet thrilling, chilling, and telling a story, serialized or otherwise, all come a distant second. Part of the joy of wading around world-building constructions is getting lost in the ins and outs, exploring the back alleys and nooks and crannies. Who wouldn’t want to play in the Potterverse sandbox for a bit longer? There’s getting lost, however, and then there’s getting dropped into exponentially metastasizing mythologies without a compass or map. It’s a tough ask, even if your spin-off isn’t suffering under the spell of Returnsius Diminishium.
Or if your main hero is a bit of a misfire. No offense to Redmayne, who stammers and shuffles and sternly waves his wand with the requisite amount of commitment. But we served with Harry Potter, we knew Harry Potter, he was a friend of ours. And you, Newt Scamander, are no Harry Potter. He may not be the Jar Jar Binks of Potterworld, but even when given basic quests and the chance to make goo-goo eyes with Katherine Waterston’s paramystical investigator or Zoë Kravitz’s former childhood crush, Scamander isn’t a compelling enough protagonist to guide us through a labyrinth of backstories. Fogler’s lovelorn Muggle from Queens fares a little better (he’s the secret MVP of these prequels), as does Jessica Williams’ “Lally” Hicks, a mischievous witch and series newbie with an oddly unplaceable Mid-Atlantic accent. She’s part of a crew that the zoologist assembles in order to keep a sacred animal safe. It seems that there’s a rare, deer-like creature that’s used in Council of Magic presidential elections. Grindelwald has somehow wormed his way out of trouble and into the upcoming election. If he can get the last of these two fantastic beasts, he can bewitch them and rig the vote, thus beginning his reign or terror. He already has one. Newt has the other.
Let us now briefly praise Mads Mikkelsen, who stepped in for the actor originally cast in the Grindelwald role. You might have heard that He Who Shall Not Be Named has been embroiled in some legal issues, which caused Warners to sever their Beasts-related ties and bring the Danish actor on board. The improvement is vast, and not just because the problematic aspect has been wanded away. (The studio still has to deal with their unfolding Ezra Miller situation — a pity, as the brooding young thespian with the Goth-fabulous look is particularly good here.) In one fell swoop, the prequels’ villain has gone from a movie star doing his typically eccentric thing in albino cosplay to a genuinely brooding, menacing, power-mad bad guy. The fact that he and Jude Law have their own chemistry together — Hannibal and Lenny Belardo fans, start your ‘shipping! — helps sell the notion that once upon a time, these two men loved each other and wanted to change the world, before an ideological parting of ways caused them to be bitter enemies.
It’s your basic Charles Xavier-versus-Magneto scenario, only with the homoerotic aspects being upgraded from subtext to text. As for Law, he made for a hot pope and makes for an even hotter head-wizard-in-charge. Their opening scene together, along with their climactic battle, are easily the strongest sequences in the film. Easily as in: There’s not much competition for best-in-show. This is number three out of a possible five-film run, and if the third time isn’t a charm, it’s unlikely to change course. You already get a numbing sense of a déjà vu spell being cast over the proceedings. You’ve been here before, Hogwarts-and-all. And the only things these movies are doing are reminding you how superior and less soap-operatic their franchise forebears were.
There is one aspect of The Secrets of Dumbledore worth mentioning, however, that doesn’t require a Ph.D. in Potterology to grok. Grindelwald gets exonerated for his crimes due to a “lack of evidence.” The real reason is that a political executive “who chose easy over right” has allowed some loopholes to be exploited, which is how this dictator-wannabe ends up on the ballot. The era of these prequels, it should be noted, is the late 1920s, which gives everyone an excuse to dress in swell, swoon-worthy period garb. (Trust us when we say that costume designer Colleen Atwood is a genuine magician in this respect.) But once Grindelwald is nominated, a noticeable strain of Nazi imagery from the next decade begins to creep into the visuals. “Dangerous times favor dangerous men,” we’re told. As for the followers rabidly responding to his conspicuously populist rhetoric, someone says that if you “deny them their voices…the streets will run with blood.” It may be a coincidence that Grindelwald’s main political rival is a female candidate. It’s not a coincidence that he’s coded as a fascist, nor is the notion that because he was left unchecked by the powers that be, he’s trying to grab power by any means at his disposal — and will likely keep doing so if he’s allowed to. All these wizards and witches and magical incantations and fantastic beasts exist in a world of fiction. The issues being worked out under the cover of entertainment, however, don’t feel very fictional at all.