It’s been tough sledding for the Fantastic Beasts franchise. First of all, having to live up to the Harry Potter films is a near-impossible task, especially given that those films were largely about the childlike wonder and awe that magic can bring. This new spinoff was comprised of adult characters, taking on a much darker tale, a race war between magic users and regular humans. That Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them recaptured the magic it did was truly remarkable, but the troublesome sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald, was a slog that nearly derailed everything. And this doesn’t factor in self-afflicted damage caused by Johnny Depp, JK Rowling, and Ezra Miller.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is both a return to the magic and fun of the first movie, but also a welcome course correction. It’s like Hermione cast the biggest Reparo spell over the entire franchise. The incomprehensible predecessor is left behind with all of its complications in favor of a streamlined story in which a small, nimble version of Dumbledore’s Army take on the evil Grindelwald, with one of the many course corrections that Mads Mikkelsen has replaced Depp in the role, and it’s a definite trade-up.
The film begins with a scene that is sure to warm the hearts of die-hard Harry Potter fans. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) meets with his former friend-turned-nemesis Grindelwald in a cafe to discuss the brewing war. Those who know the complicated history between these two will eat up the delicious conversation, in which certain feelings are confirmed once and for all without a shred of dilly-dallying. We’re then carried to the centerpiece of these films, magizoologist Newt Scamander. Eddie Redmayne’s commitment and pure joy at playing this role continues to be obvious, both in the energy he brings to it and the body language. Newt arrives just in time to witness the birth of rare creature with a powerful ability. The deer-like beast is almost certainly going to be part of a huge merchandising campaign by Warner Bros., but here its fate and that of its family is bittersweet. There will be tears. For now.
The burdensome ensemble of the last movie (Seriously, there were so many characters it made my head spin) has been trimmed down significantly, making for better exploration and interaction. Dumbledore gathers Newt, who is joined by his brother and powerful Aurer, Theseus (the underrated Callum Turner), professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams, terrific in capturing the 1930s-era syntax and cadence), loyal muggle and friend Jacob Kowalski (franchise champ Dan Fogler), French wizard Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), and Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates). Together, they must travel to the German Ministry of Magic, thwart Grindelwald and his plans to win an important election, while defeating his minions which includes Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose powers are growing out of control as he deals with revelations about his connection to the Dumbledore family.
Suffering numerous delays, partly due to COVID but also issues with Rowling’s screenplay, the author is joined by franchise writer Steve Kloves. Hopefully, this will be the arrangement going forward, as the pair deliver a terrific combination of charming entertainment and deep-rooted Potterverse lore. The smaller cast, which unfortunately means very little of Katherine Waterston as Tina, gives us a chance to see characters in a different light. The strained relationship between Newt and Theseus remains, but we get to see them actually acting like siblings, protecting one another. There’s also the best scene of the entire franchise so far, involving a hilarious creature walk through a dangerous cave with the fidgety Newt and cool Theseus making themselves look like fools. It’s interesting to see Newt as less of the lead, but as a key fixture of the team. Dumbledore really steps forward this time, with Law providing that gleaming twinkle in his eye just like Richard Harris would as the Hogwarts professor.
For Jacob and Queenie (Alison Sudol) obsessives like myself, their relationship is treated with a lot more care this time. I hated the portrayal of Jacob in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Like pretty much everything in that terrible screenplay, he was much more dour, kind of a curmudgeon when truly he is the heart and soul of these movies. He’s even better, funnier, more courageous, when defending the woman he loves. But Queenie has gone over to the dark side, and a major subplot has to do with bringing her back over to the light. Every character has an arc, something of importance to do.
Even longtime director David Yates is revitalized by this fresh approach. He’s been behind the camera since The Order of the Phoenix in 2007, and to be fair, his style had gotten stale. But maybe all he needed was a vastly improved screenplay with easily defined characters and action, because this is his best work in years. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore has an energy that has been missing. The future of this Harry Potter spinoff remain up in the air. Warner Bros. is taking a wait-and-see approach to further sequels. But if we’re simply going by quality, this one has cast such a spell that leaving Newt, Jacob, Dumbledore, and the rest behind so soon would be a crime worth being thrown into Azkaban over.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore opens on April 15th.