“Secrets of Dumbledore” is a waste of potential.
When “Fantastic Beasts” first came to the big screen, it offered an experience unique from every other entry in the “Harry Potter” franchise, a film entirely about the magical creatures of this fantastical world set in early 20th-century New York.
Two sequels later, half-baked plots and convoluted world-building have muddled the charm of this first entry.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” follows Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) planning to foil the plans of the grisly Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen).
Unceremonious firing of Johnny Depp aside, Mikkelson (“Casino Royale,” “Hannibal”) fits the role of wizard-warmonger Grindelwald perfectly. Where Colin Farrell played Gellert as indignant and Depp, maniacal, Mikkelson brings a layer of sophistication that adds a layer of menace felt throughout the feature.
Other standouts include Law (“Gattaca,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) playing young Albus with a mix of wisdom and heart and Dan Fogler (“The Walking Dead,” “The Offer”) as affable Jacob Kowalski — the endearing baker with no actual reason to be in this movie.
Occasionally bad accents aside, only one actor in the massive ensemble sticks out with a flat performance: Ezra Miller.
Despite being a focal point for the series — even though their character “died” at the end of the first movie and was hardly in the second — “Secrets of Dumbledore” gives Miller minimal screentime in favor of other characters and subplots.
The time Miller is given in this outing, they act awkwardly and unemotionally, only seen with facial expression of angst. Their one-note performance is only further mired when taking into account their recent arrest and allegations of volatility.
It seems this film can’t escape controversy. With Miller’s arrest, the firing of Depp, J.K. Rowling’s continued writing and producing for the franchise and the editing out of LGBTQ+ scenes for China, one could surmise this franchise is doomed to irrelevance.
Fortunately, there are saving graces when this “Fantastic Beasts” movie actually focuses on the fantastic beasts. The creativity and detail put into the magical animals paired with terrific visual effects are the best moments of the feature and nearly make up for the film’s shortcomings alone.
The fight sequences sprinkled throughout embrace the limitless nature that comes with a fantasy setting. While the use of some of these elements call into question their absence in the “Harry Potter” series (strange dream dimensions, blood sacrifice resurrections, somehow teleporting a person inside a brick wall as if they’re graffiti), it’d be remiss to say the wizard duels are anything but riveting.
The enjoyment of these aspects makes one wonder why this franchise can’t entirely be about a zoologist finding magical animals instead of 20th-century wizard politics.
Forming the main crux of the story for “Secrets of Dumbledore” favors this bureaucratic direction, detailing the election of a new head for the wizarding world. Instead of using this story device to work in tandem with character development and pacing, the film unsubtly alludes to real world politics.
Speeches regarding polarization, disinformation and bigotry are peppered throughout the feature as hollow commentary. It doesn’t help that the way the election is resolved is by placing blind faith into a magical baby deer, flying in the face of the messaging to be careful where one places trust.
It’s difficult to categorize “Secrets of Dumbledore,” as a product of controversy and misguided direction, but simultaneously featuring creative action and a colorful world. The end result amounts to a mess of potential and a movie that just barely justifies its presence.
It’ll be up to audiences to decide if “Fantastic Beasts” continues past this point to live on with new direction or be put to sleep with the likes of other fallen franchises.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” rated PG-13, is out now in theaters.