When Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindewald landed in theaters back in 2018, the film found itself at odds with real-life controversy surrounding both the titular villain's actor, Johnny Depp, and the Wizarding World's own creator J.K. Rowling. While this perhaps kept some audiences from fully enjoying the film, it was hardly disagreed upon that it was a bloated, rather splintered story that was more concerned setting up future installments than telling the story at hand. In an attempt to repair both problems, Steve Kloves was brought on to help rewrite the third installment alongside Rowling who was the sole writer on the first two Fantastic Beasts films while Grindelwald was recast with Mads Mikkelsen taking over. Kloves, who wrote all but one of the original Harry Potter films, helps to make Secrets of Dumbledore sleeker and more refined, but yet still presents a film that is more about just trying to get to the next film.
A positive is that Mikkelsen disarms all fears he would be an inferior version of Depp's praised villain from the previous film. Presenting a more complex, mature version, he carries his devious plot of attempting to take over the Wizarding World with devilish delight. This is not to say he doesn't add a certain appeal to the role, but he's returned to his Hannibal days, playing a villain that justifies evil actions with pathos-embedded motives. It is this deceptive, populist nature that makes his every scene-chewing appearance progressive to a potentially world-changing climax.
This is not to say the rest of the cast is not essential. Eddie Redmayne's return to the leading role of magic zoologist New Scamander is one of eccentricity and a gentle touch that counters some of the more brutish twists and turns around him. He also doubles as the one driving the other plot of teaming up with Dumbledore (Jude Law) to counter Grindelwald's political and social attacks on the Wizarding World. Meanwhile, Law creates a further defined past for the popular character originally played by the late-Richard Harris before Michael Gambon took over for the rest of the original film series. He covers Dumbledore's transitioning from enthusiastic idealistic to Harry Potter's eventual old mentor with delicate commitment. And, of course, Dan Fogler's return as Muggle war veteran and baker Jacob Kowalski is a grounded emotional journey that gives some heart to a film more concerned with world-ending stakes. Especially when he and his fractured relationship with mind-reading witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) takes the stage, managing to create an engrossing love story that not only comments on the personal stakes the audience face, but a hope of a more accepting future their relationship embodies.
The downside? While Kloves writing helps trim the fat off the previous film, the result is several subplots and supporting characters that were set-up in Crimes of Grindelwald are sidelined, sometimes to disappointing results. Many noted the absence of Katherine Waterston's character Tina Goldstein in trailers for the new film. Touted as Newt's love interest, Waterston for whatever reason is barely in the film and Newt's complicated relationship with his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) is seemingly put to bed before the opening credits roll. The biggest shocker is that of Ezra Miller's character Credence Barebone. In the previous film, his orphaned character was the central MacGuffin and is ultimately revealed to be Aurelius Dumbledore, related to the famous wizard himself. Here, he is demoted to Grindelwald's henchmen. As a result, the usage of new addition, Richard Coyle as Dumbledore's brother Aberforth, is also nearly pointless. And while Jessica Williams turn as Professor Eulalie "Lally" Hicks is a wonderful new character who adds humor and intrigue in her scenes, she's mostly there as a pawn in the larger plot with little story of her own.
Kloves manages to keep the story more on-key this time, creating a sort of magical take on Ocean's Eleven as good and evil try to outmaneuver each other. But without a doubt this film is more a Band-Aid to the damage the last film created. One that mostly heals the splintered franchise's many, many, many set-ups, but leaving a lot to desire. Even as veteran composer James Newton Howard adds a more old-school big orchestra to the score, giving soul to every scene, the many moving parts adds up to very little progression. In irony, it has the opposite problem of the previous installment. It's a filler that even manages to make Mikkelsen's performance come off as a villain-of-the-week instead of the big bad of the entire story.
This is a film that has big ideas and a lot of likable characters, but it also reminds people the prequel series suffers the issue of many like it (a la The Hobbit). It's more concerned with adding a bunch of backstory to the original Harry Potter series then telling it's own story. A story that director David Yates struggles to drive into accomplishment and inventiveness without a well-developed book series to help him out. One that hinders pacing of an entertaining installment of which makes Secrets of Dumbledore an improvement over the previous film. However, this is still the middle entry of a five-film story. If Warner Bros. chooses to greenlight the remaining installments (rumor is this film's performance will determine that), it will be a challenge to the creative forces here that it's time to either get into the endgame or close shop.
Performances (notably Mikkelsen)
Leftover subplots from previous film.