'The Secrets of Dumbledore' review: Plenty of wizards, no magic
The Harry Potter-adjacent series continues to spin its wheels in spiritless third chapter.
Three entries in, the "Fantastic Beasts" series has yet to figure out what it is, what it's trying to say, or why — outside of its connections to a certain boy wizard — anyone should care.
"The Secrets of Dumbledore" is the latest slog through a lifeless parade of wizards, wands and decidedly less than fantastic beasts. This one is particularly concerned with politics and the election of a ruler who will oversee the Wizard World. It is to Harry Potter what a box set of early Ringo demo tapes would be to a casual Beatles fan: it's for completists only, and no one else need apply. (That's no disrespect to Ringo; peace and love, peace and love.)
Jude Law is back as Albus Dumbledore, eventual headmaster at Hogwarts, here a practicing wizard known throughout the wizarding world as a brilliant practitioner of magic. Early on there's a scene that explicitly spells out his sexual orientation, for those dying to know the details of the off-screen love life of a fictional wizard.
Mads Mikkelsen is the dark arts master Gellert Grindelwald, replacing Johnny Depp, whose real life controversies became too risky for the series. No explanation is given for why or how he's now an entirely different person, but the storytelling here is so confounding that it's the least of the film's many problems.
Early on it seemed like Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander was the centerpiece of this series, but here he's just extra baggage, along for the ride with Brooklyn baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), witchcraft instructor Eulalie "Lally" Hicks (Jessica Williams), Newt's older brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and a few other hangers on.
The loose goal of this group is to stop the powerful and nefarious Grindelwald, whom Mikkelsen imbues with big fascist energy, from winning an election and gaining all sorts of power and influence on the world. There are a handful of side missions along the way, including one with a giant CGI crab-like creature whom apparently no wizards were around to cast a spell on.
"Dumbledore," like its predecessors "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" (2016) and "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" (2018), has a handsome look, spiffy costuming and stately production values. The problem is the centerless storytelling, and the overwhelming feeling that none of this is going anywhere. Who, as an audience, are we supposed to care about? Who is meant to be our guide through this world? And what are we supposed to be taking away from this?
"Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay, along with her collaborator Steve Kloves, and series helmer and "Potter" veteran David Yates (he did the last four "Harry Potter" movies) steers the ship. They may be the only ones to whom all of this makes complete and total sense; anyone else will need a road map to connect the dots, recall character motivations and remember what we're doing here in the first place, storytelling facets which are seemingly of no concern to the filmmakers.
There's a creature in the film, a tiny fawn-like being called a Qilin — it's pronounced "chillin'" — that can read one's soul and bows to those who are pure of heart. "The Secrets of Dumbledore" itself would not want to be judged by its high standards: it's such a tangled ball of corporate interests, muddled fan service, franchise puffery and good old fashioned hot air that it would never pass the test. A world full of wizards has never felt less magical.
'Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore'
Rated PG-13: for some fantasy action/violence
Running time: 143 minutes