There are many answers. However, the answer that seems to escape many filmmakers, studios, even critics often goes unsung, unspoken: illusion. Have the craftsman behind the scenes successfully sold the illusion of this world? World-building isn’t only about information, it’s about selling an environment to our ever-discerning eyes. This is of utmost importance in the fantasy genre. For all of their faults, all of their naysayers, the Potter spinoffs have proven quite adept at world-building, of selling its audience on the magic of this unseen society around the world. Perhaps, even more so than the franchise from which it was spun. Potter was contained primarily to England and the United Kingdom, whereas Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has expanded to imagine a magical world across an entire globe. The 2016 original introduced a bevy of endearing characters, villains, and magical creatures, setting the stage for a mass conflict to come. The 2018 sequel Crimes of Grindelwald elevated such stakes, re-introducing Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law) as a younger man trying to change the world, and weaving together the political, the religious, and the sociological in order to deepen the already vast milieu of the Wizarding World. And here, though it is the weakest of the three, The Secrets of Dumbledore more or less connects the dots between Newt Scamander and Harry Potter, between Jude Law and Richard Harris, wrapping up the present conflict and any dangling threads of the last six years. What these three share in common is their impeccable crafts work in the hands of director David Yates. The latest installment is no different, save one glaring exception.
Returning to aid Yates in his quest are perennially underrated composer James Newton Howard, again producing an indelible score, editor Mark Day, production designer Stuart Craig with another bevy of moody environs, famed costume designer Colleen Atwood’s exquisite detail, and Visual Effects Supervisor Christian Manz, all of whom bring their A-game again to these proceedings. Yates is an expert at ratcheting tension through creeping camerawork, using slow dollies and even voyeuristic framing to convey impending doom or danger around the corner. The cinematography by franchise newcomer George Richmond is a step down from French DP Phillippe Rousselot’s sublime imitation of Bruno Delbonnel seen in the first two films. Muddy nighttime images and ruddy daytime images create a color palette of constant grays and browns, and without the proper contrast to make them pop appropriately. The script by writer Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling unfortunately dispenses with some of the thematic depth found in Crimes of Grindelwald. Fewer subplots may be beneficial for avoiding convoluted missteps, but it also means there’s less scope to the story at large. Utilizing a simpler plot, Secrets of Dumbledore is weaker than its predecessor when plumbing the darker complexities at the heart of the Wizarding World itself.
Through directorial will, Yates prevents his third outing from succumbing to the dreaded threequel curse, even if there are classic hallmarks here of such: wayward continuity, a somewhat lighter tone, and characters missing in action. Tina Goldstein is this franchise’s Cyclops, a romantic interest pushed off-screen for arbitrary reasons. Her relationship with Newt was one of the more effective emotional beats in the previous film, so it’s a shame the once-palpable chemistry between Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne has been reduced to essentially one scene this time around. At least they didn’t kill her off unceremoniously. Yates and Kloves had an easy answer waiting for them in the event they needed to recast Johnny Depp: Grindelwald makes a habit of appropriating other faces, as he did in the original film when he looked like Colin Farrell right before having his mask undone to reveal Depp’s makeup underneath. Mads Mikkelsen could have been another such impersonation. Instead, there is no explanation given for the sudden reversal, and we’re to believe Grindelwald didn’t just sport white hair, pale skin, and a mustache a mere four years ago (months ago in movie time). To make matters worse, while Mikkelsen does no wrong, he cannot hold a candle to Depp in this role. The surly gravitas of a global cult leader is absent in favor of a calm, political demeanor more befitting of a Bond villain than one of the greatest dark wizards to grace the Earth. Kloves flirts with American politik metaphors, but can’t decide between modern allusions to Trump and historical allusions to Hitler.
Redmayne is still awkwardly charming as Newt, his eccentricities more entertaining and interesting than Mikkelsen’s own. There’s an entire film to be made only about Scamander’s adventures chasing various creatures around the globe. Once again, delightful moments abound when he encounters such beasts: a vicious cross between a lobster and a scorpion, the all-important Qilin, a scaly delicate horse-like animal which can read a man’s soul better than himself. The Qilin ends up factoring into a climactic political election in a very big, quite thrilling manner, nimbly illuminating what we already knew about both Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Ezra Miller can perform sullen darkness in his sleep, so he manages to impress in spite of lesser screen time. Dan Fogler continues to surprise as one of the best characters in the series, his bumbling muggle the heart of gold amid a cast of prickly conjurers and all-knowing savants. Jude Law’s embodiment of Dumbledore’s wry humor and humble wisdom is a perfect encapsulation of what fans know from Michael Gambon’s take on the character. His frenemy relationship with Gellert provides for an unusual dynamic, one somewhat underplayed and underwritten given the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. Nevertheless, a film can’t find a better opening than pitting Law and Mikkelsen against one another over tea in a glitzy European diner. And this franchise, long in the tooth now, can’t find a better group of stalwarts guiding it behind the scenes.
P.S. this franchise is filled with unfairly maligned celebrities, save one glaring exception. I’ll let you figure out which.