Rating: PG-13
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Jessica Williams, Richard Coyle, William Nadylam, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Victoria Yeates, Katherine Waterston
Writers: J.K. Rowling & Steve Kloves, based on characters created by J.K. Rowling
Director: David Yates
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: April 15, 2022

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is the third entry in the FANTASTIC BEASTS series, which is a prequel series to the HARRY POTTER franchise.

This is all a mighty, mighty Warner Bros. property, and THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is reputedly the third in what is to be a five-film FANTASTIC BEASTS arc. It is therefore not the first place one would expect anything socially groundbreaking, but here it is. Whatever else one can say about FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE (and we’ll get to all that in a bit), it’s the first major studio franchise film (at least in this reviewer’s memory) to have a gay hero whose romantic history is a backbone of the plot.

It’s the late 1930s. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who HARRY POTTER fans know will become headmaster at the wizardry prep school Hogwarts far down the road, is striving desperately to prevent the takeover of the magical world by Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). Grindelwald is adamantly anti-Muggle (that’s non-magical people, like the audience), and wants to kill or enslave the whole lot.

The problem is, neither Dumbledore nor Grindelwald can directly act against one another, due to an unbreakable charm they both created when they were younger men in love with each other. It ensured that if they ever had a serious disagreement – like this one – they wouldn’t be able to fight.

These facts are imparted to Dumbledore’s current allies, none of whom have any reaction whatever to the revelation, apart from, “Oh, so that’s why you need us.” It’s a perfectly valid narrative point, it works way better than “Oh, they were best friends” as an explanation, and yet, it is something new by way of super-budget storytelling. Representation matters, and this absolutely counts.

Of course, the putative central figure of the FANTASTIC BEASTS films remains Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), zoologist and protector of, well, fantastic beasts. Newt is here charged with protecting an extremely rare baby Qilin (pronounced “Chillen”), which looks something like a scaly zebra.

For reasons that make more sense in terms of entertainment than plot, Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is once more brought into the fray. Jacob is in love with the witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), but she’s become part of Grindelwald’s cabal.

Others involved in the situation include the witch Lally (the delightful Jessica Williams), Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Grindelwald ally Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), and Newt’s adoring assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates).

Director David Yates and screenwriters Rowling & Steve Kloves make FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE an immersive experience, if not a consistent one.

To be fair, Dumbledore and Company are trying to outwit Grindelwald’s ability to see the future, so they’re trying to be unpredictable on purpose. As the FANTASTIC BEASTS movies, unlike their HARRY POTTER counterparts, are not adapted from novels, nobody knows where this is all headed. We want movies to be unpredictable, of course, but parts of this simply wander, other plot strands that seem vital get rushed, and we never do get a clear explanation for why gold-hearted Queenie ever fell in with Grindelwald.

But we believe in the world we are presented with here. Every detail is fully imagined and feels lived-in. It’s beautiful and familiar and strange all at once, and the production design team, led by production designers Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, deserve huge applause.

Parents should be advised that, despite its HARRY POTTER connections, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is not for little ones. The complicated storytelling aside, there is a very distressing death, early on, of a baby animal. It’s an entirely CGI fantastic beast, but it’s the type of thing that some younger children may not be able to handle.

Redmayne remains the soul of socially awkward decency as Newt. Law is suitably thoughtful as Dumbledore. Mikkelsen is wholly charismatic as Grindelwald; we see why people might actually follow him. Fogler is swell as our Muggle focal point, modest and brave and funny. Sudol, when Queenie is allowed to brighten, wondrously seems to have stepped fully formed out of a period screwball comedy.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is uneven, but what’s good about it is very good indeed.

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