Producers: David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Tim Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Lionel Wigram Director: David Yates Screenplay: J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Poppy Corby Tuech, Richard Coyle and Victoria Yeates Distributor: Warner Bros.
“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” was ridiculed in 1999 for a plot that centered on trade negotiations. What then to say of this third installment (out of a projected five) of J.K. Rawlings’ prequel to her “Harry Potter” phenomenon, which is all about the machinations surrounding an election? An election which, in the modern fashion, a villain is trying to rig in his favor, of course. There are plenty of subsidiary details—most dealing with magic and wizardry, naturally—but “The Secrets of Dumbledore” is fundamentally an election story.
Some elections are interesting, of course. This one isn’t terribly. It involves the wizard world’s choice of a new leader, and there are three candidates. Two are of negligible interest to Rowling and her co-writer Steve Kloves: Vicência Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and Liu Tao (Dave Wong); both are establishment candidates, the minister of magic for Brazil and China, respectively. It’s the third candidate who matters. He’s Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), the wicked necromancer who, in the second movie of the series, tried to bring about a cataclysmic end to the muggle world but was stymied and captured by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), his loyal follower Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and their allies.
But Grindelwald escaped and now lives in exile. He has a huge following among those in the wizard world who agree with him that the muggles should be eradicated, and when, with the connivance of the current Supreme Leader Anton Vogel (Oliver Masucci), he manages to get all the charges against him dropped, he is able to throw his wand into the electoral ring.
And he has an ace to play—the Qilin, one of the fantastic beasts Newt is obsessed with finding—a creature that can look into the souls of individuals and detect their capacity for leadership and wisdom. The opening of “Secrets” depicts a battle between Newt and Grindelwald’s followers for control of a young Qilin. Grindelwald’s minions are victorious, killing the beast’s mother and taking it to their master. What they do not know is that the Qilin is only one of a pair of twins, and Scamander takes the other. It proves instrumental in denying Grindelwald the office he seeks.
In order to bring about that result, however, Dumbledore—whose youthful pact with Grindelwald prevents either from killing the other—has to rely on the cleverness of his acolyte Newt, along with his bevy of trusted comrades—his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams), wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston)—as well as his aide Bunty (Victoria Yeates) and fan favorite, muggle Jacob Kowalksi (Dan Fogler).
But Grindelwald has loyal, powerful followers too, among them Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), for whom Jacob still carries a torch, and Vinda Rosier (Poppy Corby-Tuech). The most mysterious member of his entourage, though, is the sullen, enigmatic Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose connection to the family of Albus and his inn-keeping brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle) is fully revealed by the close of this installment.
As far as characters go, this is only the tip of a large iceberg, and the episodes that make up the complicated narrative are no less numerous. To offer one example, Grindelwald’s followers manage to have Theseus arrested and tossed into an infamous prison in Germany. In a long, effects-stuffed sequence, Newt infiltrates the place and rescues his brother—but in doing so must execute a silly dance that would not have been out of place on a Monty Python program. Meanwhile others in his crew infiltrate a banquet where Jacob is framed for trying to assassinate Grindelwald, making him and his associates public enemies.
Not to leave Albus out in the cold, the scripters arrange for an extravagant duel between him and Barebone on a city street that gets ripped asunder in their confrontation.
Everything culminates in a showdown at the final election ritual, where Grindelwald attempts to employ his Qilin, which in a gruesome ritual he’s killed and resurrected as his tool, to ensure that the crowd will choose him over his rivals. What he doesn’t reckon with is an elaborate if nonsensical plan whereby Dumbledore’s followers have equipped themselves with a bunch of identical suitcases in an elaborate shell game that forces Grindelwald’s acolytes to chase all of them down as they walk through the winding cobblestone streets, the suspense supposedly multiplied by the chance that one of Scamander’s crew might have defected. Though Grindelwald is elected through his chicanery, the appearance of the second, untainted Qilin proves enough to turn the tide against him, and after his departure a family reconciliation and wedding act as icing on the cake.
All of which should go far to suggest that “Secrets” is overstuffed with characters and incidents, which might please fans of the world Rowling has created but, despite the skill of editor Mark Day, will probably flummox the uninitiated as much as the ways of the wizard world do the muggles. One does have to admire the virtuoso effects work, which together with the lustrous production design by Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, the gorgeous costumes by Colleen Atwood and the luminous cinematography by George Richmond make for a succession of wondrous, if often deliberately goofy, images, amplified by James Newton Howard’s insistent score.
But the film’s opulent presentation can’t make up for a problem that’s weighed down the entire series: the dullness of the Newt Scamander character, whose shy, recessive personality is unredeemed by Redmayne’s effort to make him quietly heroic. Law is more animated as the young Dumbledore, and Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp as Grindelwald as a result of the latter’s off-screen behavior, is actually an improvement, bringing a smooth malevolence to the character even if he has little to do but look wicked. Once again Fogler’s bumptious energy energizes things when he appears, but he too is underused this time around. The rest of the cast is okay without being outstanding, except for Miller, who brings none of the mercurial glee that marked his version of The Flash to the dour, depressed Credence. Of course, recent events have marked him with the same sort of scarlet letter that laid Depp low, so whatever plans Rowling might have had for his character in future installments might now be subject to revision.
When the “Fantastic Beasts” series began, none too promisingly, one could hope that it would follow the trajectory of the “Harry Potter” films, which started out weakly but grew progressively better. Since director David Yates, who directed the later Potter installments, was in charge, such hopes did not seem misplaced. Now that the series has passed the projected halfway point without significant improvement, though, you have to wonder whether the wizard world magic has simply lost its old potency, and perhaps it’s time for Rowling to go back to the drawing board and start anew. Or just bring back Harry and his friends. Redoubling on Newt Scamander is certainly not the answer. The beasts may be fantastic, but the movie isn’t.