Return with us now, to the Wizarding World and the latest wagonload in the content caravan of “Fantastic Beasts,” another prequel that serves as a place-holder film more at home on Warner Brothers’ accounting books than in J.K. Rowling’s.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” lets Jude Law bring a fine gravitas to the Wizard Who Would Run Hogwarts and casts Mads Mikkelsen as an upgrade from canceled Johnny Depp as Grindelwald, the villain of this latest never-ending “trilogy.”
The final showdown may be anticlimactic enough to make even the cosplayers who show up for this wonder “What the hell was the point of all that?” But these pictures have settled into a gorgeous digitally-augmented alternate reality, recognizably period piece but distinctly alien. Here that’s a reality where wizards work through their differences as we know that in their world the Muggles (mostly unseen) are wrestling with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, or their modern counterparts.
“The Secrets of Dumbledore” has the ambition to be “about something,” where “peaceful transition of power” is lamented with nostalgia, in which the characters and those of us watching them wish for justice and not open-criminals “absolved of” their “alleged crimes,” for leaders who “Do what is right, not what is easy.” We’re repeatedly reminded “Dangerous times favor dangerous men.”
But damn, this thing is a mess. A “story” that barely deserves that label takes forEVER to get going, a vast clutter of forgettable characters are played not by the legends of British cinema, television and theatre who populated the Harry Potter films, but by not-yet-wholly-established “stars” like Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Alison Sudol and Poppy Corby-Tuech.
You need a scorecard, or have the books memorized, to keep track of who’s who.
All of Warner Brothers’ cost-economies in this cash cow come home to roost in this two hour and twenty-two minute bore, none more telling than sticking with British TV director David Yates, whose “trains-run-on-time” helming of the last “Potter” pictures and the entire “Beasts” franchise has reduced the films to efficient, colorless style-starved fan-servicing “content,” a time-killing anchor to a Warner Brothers or Pluto TV “Wizarding World” streaming channel of the future.
Even shedding one of the outsider-looking-in irritants of the series, the many actual-named “Fantastic Beasts” — a maddening “Let’s look up what claptrap J.K. dreamed-up to call this or that hybrid of mythic critters, and how to spell it” — points to this ponderous picture’s failings.
This outing, only the magical all-seeing deer-goat “Qilin,” pronounced “Chillan,” as in “All God’s Chillan want the Qilin to pick a new leader of the Confederation of Wizards,” is identified by name. Praise be. Other crablike beasts, tentacled prison Kraken, skittering this and wandering-through-the-background that aren’t labeled. That’s the only thing that keeps “Secrets of Dumbledore” from edging towards the four hour mark as a movie.
At least we all know what a phoenix is and why it’s symbolically in the background of many a scene.
The plot — the murderous Grindelwald, now played by Mads and not Captain Jack, is on the lam and plotting away. It’s a winter in the Muggles’ late 1920s, and veteran wizard Albus Dumbledore (Law) and academic wizard Lally Hicks (Williams, of “The Incredible Jessica James”) are assembling a “team” to foil him.
That team consists of biologist and “Fantastic Beasts” author Newt (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus Scamander (Turner, of “Assassin’s Creed”), Newt’s plucky assistant Broadacre (Victoria Yeates) and the comical Brooklyn baker-Muggle Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
They’re to “save the world” from Grindelwald, who is still bound by “Blood Troth” to his long-ago lover Dumbledore. They’ll need magic, Newt’s bottomless suitcase and a little Brooklyn “three card Monte” trickery to manage that.
There are, of course, other Dumbledores, a fresh LeStrange and younger versions of others played in the Potter pictures (Fiona Glascott is a younger Minerva “Maggie Smith” McGonagall). Casting relative unknowns in so many roles makes for a movie that’s puzzling to parse out for non-fans of the Rowling novels.
That character clutter is joined by scenes that serve no dramatic purpose and dialogue that rarely transcends the “I’ll have to ensure that my wand registration is up to date.”
I like the fact that Rowling & Co. sought to make the connection between the roiled world we live in, with power-mad and openly cruel Grindelwald elites seeking to “remake the world” as “our birthright.” The fascist-cultist-populist rallies of the political candidates for leader of the wizarding conspiracy are blunt and leave no doubt of their message.
Destroy everything, enslave everyone without a wand, and some with them.
A comic bit that involves a bit of scorpion/crab dancing by Redmayne and Turner, playing his bureaucratic brother tickles, as does some of the shuffling suitcase business.
But an “assassination attempt” is filmed as if all involved knew fans would be more interested in the banquet meal of floating plates leading around wizard food service staff, and lands flat. The digital “beasts” are impressive and forgettable, like far too many of the players in this piece.
That goes for this movie, delayed perhaps too long to maintain its thin memory connection to the long story thread Rowling & Warners were conjuring up. The passage of time makes this piffle passe.
Too many characters means there’s somebody for everybody to potentially identify with, but none of them have enough to do, with only Law and to a lesser degree Mikkelsen, who brings real contempt and menace to Grindelwald, making much of an impression.
Redmayne in particular must be desperate for a way out of this endless “EastEnders for Wizards” obligation. Playing one note has to be as tiring as watching it.
Rating: PG-13 for some fantasy action/violence.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, Jessica Williams, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech and Mads Mikkelsen.
Credits: Directed by David Yates, script by Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling, based on her books. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:22