Truly, it would have been better for everyone if David Yates had left J.K. Rowling’s clutches after the last Harry Potter film or maybe even sooner. Not that he’s devoid of talent behind the camera, but watching him continue to helm the Fantastic Beasts series is like watching a sports team play out the string when its coach is out of ideas. We badly need someone who can see this material with fresh eyes. You’ll recall that the Harry Potter series got good only in its third movie, when a new director came in. The third Fantastic Beasts film opens this weekend, and while it’s a noticeable improvement over its two predecessors, it doesn’t rise to the level of goodness. For its complement of interesting ideas, the thing stubbornly refuses to budge, let alone take flight.
One of those ideas is a gay romance occupying front and center, rather than just being a casual character detail. Early on, we learn that Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp in the role) were a couple in their younger days, before the future Hogwarts headmaster saw what his boyfriend was turning into. Leftover from that relationship is a spell that will kill either of them if they directly try to harm the other. Thus, Dumbledore sends a team of wizards to prevent his ex from starting a genocidal war on nonmagical people. The team includes Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his more socially adept brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt’s assistant (Victoria Yeates), and a Black American (Jessica Williams) who recruits Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) even though he desperately wants to forget about magic and concentrate on the Polish bakery he just opened in London.
Much of the film takes place in Berlin in the 1930s, where the wizards arrive to find Grindelwald cleared of homicide charges and standing in an election to lead the wizarding world. Cue a lot of Albert Speer-inspired designs. One African wizard (William Nadylam) is tasked with a mission there, and just as you’re thinking that a Black man wandering solo in this historical time and place might be fraught, we never see him until he’s accomplished what he set out to do. Rowling was always good at drawing parallels between the Harry Potter stories and contemporary Britain, but she’s unwilling or unable to do the same thing with history. I’m not saying that equating Grindelwald with Hitler (or Trump or Boris Johnson, which the movie are also after) without being glib would be easy to do, but then, why set the movie in Berlin in the ’30s if you’re not going to try?
The plotting is more promising, as Grindelwald acquires the ability to predict the future, which means the wizards all have their own separate missions without knowing what the others are doing or how their work fits together. This is ingenious, and it could have been handled more deftly in the pages of a novel. A book would also have had room for Jacob’s attempts to extricate Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) from the dark side and Dumbledore’s efforts to reconcile his surly brother (Richard Coyle) with his biological son, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). The action set pieces here, like the one where the Scamander brothers try not to be stung by scorpion-like creatures, might have come off better on the page. The gay romance comes off as bland because of Law and Mikkelsen’s phlegmatic form, and while Redmayne is more firmly locked into the role of an antisocial type who’s more comfortable around animals than people, he’s not enough to carry this 142-minute opus. As a screenwriter, Rowling is still trying to squeeze the plot and detail of one of her novels into a movie, and she’s showing no signs of improvement. Rowling’s star has fallen recently due to her transphobic rhetoric, and her critics have been right about one thing: She should have stuck to the books.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
Starring Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne. Directed by David Yates. Written by J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves. Rated PG-13.