The Fantastic Beasts film series has not exactly been a success, at least as far as critical reception goes. The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was merely mediocre; the second, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was an absolute disaster that left me both angry and laughing at how bad it was. With this third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it does at least seem like Warner Bros took onboard some of the criticism; while J.K. Rowling got the sole screenwriting credit for the first two films, here she shares it with Steve Kloves, who wrote the scripts for most of the Harry Potter films. So, with a more experienced screenwriter helping out, does The Secrets of Dumbledore mark a turning point and give hope for this series? Well….no, not really.
Granted, it’s a definite improvement on Crimes of Grindelwald (not that that’s saying much); Kloves’s influence on the script is clear, as the story feels a lot more cohesive and does flow better. The trouble is, it’s still not an especially well-presented story. As Story Writing 101 tells us, a protagonist needs a goal, but as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies set out at the start of this film, it’s not made clear to the audience just what they are trying to achieve. Yes, we know they want to stop Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), but we’re left to gradually work out exactly what they’re stopping him from doing and how.
I had gone into this film with cautious optimism as the trailers did suggest some intrigue, but in fact the first and second acts are rather boring, partly because of the aforementioned unclear overall goals of the characters. The first bit of interesting action doesn’t come along until about an hour in. The film doesn’t even look very nice, presented mostly in a dull, faded hue. A few isolated scenes that hint at more interesting world-building and character development, and even indulge in the same sort of wild magic as the original Harry Potter films, just highlight how this one is failing to live up to its potential. The third act, at least, is significantly stronger with an established direction; meanwhile, the big revelation from the end of Crimes of Grindelwald – which greatly annoyed me at the time – is explained here in a way that at least isn’t as major a violation of canon as it first appeared, but does still feel a bit forced.
With Johnny Depp having been dropped from the series, Mads Mikkelsen takes over as our villain, Gellert Grindelwald. He immediately scores points for not having such ridiculous hair as Depp, and his performance is certainly a better fit for how Grindelwald was described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the parallels of his maneuvering in this film with the rise of Nazism in Germany – happening around the same time in-universe – are clear without being shoved in the audience’s face. Professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) is the strongest addition to the cast, providing many of the film’s most enjoyable moments. Otherwise, the characters feel pretty underdeveloped: Credence (Ezra Miller) doesn’t really feel essential here despite how important he was supposed to be in the last film; and the resolution of Jacob and Queenie’s relationship ends up being rushed, though Alison Sudol does put on a convincingly conflicted performance with what screentime she’s given.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is disappointingly vanilla, and not especially magical. It happens to end in a way that suggests Warner Bros are reconsidering adding more films to the series, and if they decide to just leave it there, I certainly won’t complain. Rating: 2.5/5.