There was always something pleasingly predictable about the Harry Potter films. Not least because fans came pre-versed in all that was to come, courtesy of J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful books. The formula was a winner. Beginning, muggle and end. By contrast, Rowling’s direct-to-cinema Fantastic Beasts spin off has proved less successful. Part one was a jolly adventure but the follow up came with an excess of convolution and deficiency in logic, character and direction. The landscape has shift in the years since. Episode three – The Secrets of Dumbledore – has much ground to recover. Indeed, the future of Warner Bros.’s Wizarding World might well depend on it doing just that.
It is a wise move, first and foremost, that sees Steve Kloves return to the fold as the new film’s co-writer. While its predecessors were penned by Rowling alone, the author’s cinematic inexperience was, at times, clear. Kloves adapted all but one of the Potter blockbusters. The man knows a thing or two about streamlining. It shows. Secrets may not reassert Fantastic Beasts as a worthy follow up to Potter but it does at least remind that Rowling’s world of spells, potions, Quidditch and Hogwarts has mileage in it yet. It’s just a pity this rambling would-be prequel pentalogy hasn’t fuel enough for the journey.
While an insufficiently engaging narrative is certainly part of the problem with the Fantastic Beasts saga, drama behind the scenes has done much to overshadow any and all potential successes. Rowling’s controversial stance of trans rights has, for one, riled a vast sect in her fan base. Before the camera, Johnny Depp has been ousted from his central role and Ezra Miller faces calls for the same. The Justice League star was arrested on the charge of disorderly conduct the night before this film’s premiere. It’s a far cry from the early days of Potter, in which all cast were either national treasures or doe eyed newcomers.
Such weighty baggage would be tough on any film but it’s nigh on catastrophic for one with all the energy of a dying phoenix. There can be little doubt at this stage that the Fantastic Beasts series has now largely lost its way. It is with sorry desperation that Yates peppers Secrets with recalls to Potter, be that swelling musical cues or cameos for some of that series more beloved creatures and critters. The effect is less to rustle excitement than to remind how little, by comparison, Fantastic Beasts has succeed in building as strong a unique identity.
Whereas Harry Potter anchored his own story, gifting readers/viewers a specific protagonist to root for, Fantastic Beasts wavers. As before, Secrets is at its best when Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is front and centre. It’s a brilliant opening that frames him as jungle explorer, seeking out magical creatures in the Chinese provinces. The quilin he seeks will prove key to the story that follows but the sequence in and of itself is as magical, heartfelt and gorgeously shot as any in the series to date. Later in the film, a superbly choreographed prison breakout – also focussed on the fantastic beasts of the series’ title – marks the story’s highest peak. Two hours solely devoted to the socially awkward antics of Scamander would be preferable to anything Fantastic Beasts has done to date.
The action kicks off many months on from the close of The Crimes of Grindelwald. We know this because Alison Sudol’s ditsy legilimens Queenie has died her red hair platinum blonde and Miller’s Credence now has long, greasy black locks. Both are on the side of Gellert Grindelwald, who is now played by Danish rent-a-baddie Mads Mikkelsen. He plans to take over the entire magical community by manipulating a vote to decide who will be the next Supreme Mugwump. It’s the thirties, war is coming.
Bound back by a blood pact from his heady teenage years, Dumbledore stands tall at the outskirts of the brewing conflict. Instead, he enlists Newt to head up a team of hardy do-gooders to tackle Grindelwald’s own ne’er-do-well gang. There’s comic relief from No Maj ally Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), sibling rivalry via Newt’s war hero brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and unrequited love, courtesy of his assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates). All excellent. Katherine Waterston and William Nadylam find themselves oddly relegated this time around but Jessica Williams does at least make for a rather dazzling addition as the indomitable Eulalie “Lally” Hicks. Williams’ diction is supreme.
There are some fine set pieces here, not to mention some slick wizard duals. The beasts themselves are often splendid and Newt’s nifler and bowtruckle companions continue to steal the show. And yet, Secrets is barely more than diverting viewing. Never essential. Kloves succeeds in paring back Rowling’s rampant world building but glaring holes and insubstantially conceived developments continue to hamper the escapism. Two more in the series remain but it’s hard to believe that there would be serious resistance if Warner Bros. rested the tale here and now.