But Mads Mikkelsen, and a heightened storyline, bring some zing to a tired franchise.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore


What exactly is Fantastic Beasts about? Three films in, J.K. Rowling's sumptuous, inscrutable series remains a mystery, a lacquered box of whimsy that lives just adjacent to Harry Potter and somehow much further from a sensical plot. Though that's hardly for lack of investment: Like the first two installments in the franchise, the latest (in theaters April 15) comes overstuffed with movie stars — can anything be wholly bad when Mads Mikkelsen is there to curl his lip? — opulent CG set pieces, and stray bits of flair, mostly in the form of its slithering, glimmering creatures.

If there was room in the budget for exposition, that money goes untouched; The Secrets of Dumbledore begins seemingly in the middle of a moment, a meeting in a café between Jude Law's elegant, melancholy wizard Albus Dumbledore and his dark-arts counterpart Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen, replacing a scuttled Johnny Depp in the role). Secrets, or at least the one the internet cares most about, don't take long to out; Dumbledore's frank declaration to the man across the table — "I was in love with you" — marks the official confirmation of a Harry-world stalwart's gay identity before the title credits roll.

That seems like big news, but director David Yates, a veteran of seven Potter films now, is impatient to move on, smash-cutting to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is busy midwifing the birth of something called a Qilin (it looks like a cross between a very small dragon and a deer, with luminescent fish scales). Qilins are valued, apparently, for their purity of heart — they're incapable of being deceived — and their ability to see into the future. That's catnip for Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the lost-soul antagonist who has pledged himself to Grindewald; he steals the little Qilin while it's still wobbling on its new legs but misses the twin left behind.

'Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The wash-tumbler of scenes that follow reintroduce a host of characters, including the Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); brassy, bookish witch Eulalie Hicks (Jessica Williams); breathy empath Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol); the pure-blooded sorcerer Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam); and Newt's natty brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Their aim is to stop Grindewald from misusing the Qilin and working his way back to power, and Yates waves many wands to get them there. People are constantly walking through walls and whirling into air, untethered by physics or gravity.

Beasts' world, at least in that sense, is immersive and lavishly built: The costumes, by four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, are gorgeously tactile, and production designer Stuart Craig gives everything that isn't wholly CGI a golden Art Deco sheen. The movie's aesthetic places it somewhere in the 1930s, and the allusions to Fascism are more explicit than they've ever been, a looming threat telegraphed via grand Hitlerean rallies and the madman-authoritarian gleam in Grindewald's promises to "burn down the world."   

It's unclear how those themes, and several scenes whose stark bloodletting pushes the film into PG-13, are meant to land with the children of Hogwarts and butterbeer. For all its sprinklings of pixie dust — a wiggly scorpion samba, a cyclone of flying pastries  — the movie is often disconcertingly adult, and at the same time, largely unconcerned with welcoming in viewers not already steeped in the mythology. The gentle zoologist Newt, and his long-running romance with Porpentina Goldstein (a barely-there Katherine Waterston) were ostensibly once the center of the story. But Redmayne's Scamander is so dreamy and recessive, he seems dwarfed by Miller's brooding, malevolent Barebone and the gale-force command of Mikkelsen, a daffodil bent against a hailstorm.

Dumbledore feels like an improvement, at least, on the joyless, enervating slog of 2018's Crimes of Grindelwald; it's nimbler and sweeter and more cohesive in its storyline. And the cast, less trapped in a fug of half-formed symbolism and subplots, are allowed realer and more romantic stakes. For a franchise that promised five films before the first was even released, though, Beasts remains a strangely liminal experience: born from a fantastic universe, but still searching for a magic of its own.  Grade: B–

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