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Film review: New ‘Fantastic Beasts’ falls short with lackluster plot, character depth

Mads Mikkelsen plays Gellert Grindelwald in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

"Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore"

Directed by David Yates

Warner Bros. Pictures

April 15

By Casey Lee

April 14, 2022 1:07 p.m.

This post was updated April 18 at 12:33 a.m.

There’s not much to call fantastic in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”

Releasing Friday, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” takes place among the mounting tensions between Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). As Dumbledore enlists the help of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the eclectic team embarks on a confusing and tedious journey to stop Grindelwald’s army of dark wizards. Looking past the charming CGI creatures and captivating special effects, the third installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise ultimately falls flat with tangential subplots that detract from an already weak conflict.

Set in the 1930s, the film opens with a tense standoff between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, showcasing both Law and Mikkelsen’s edgy chemistry through dialogue alone. In this exchange, Dumbledore blatantly declares: “It’s because I was in love with you” – referencing the blood pact made during their relationship that prevents him from directly fighting Grindelwald. Up until this moment, the series’ films had never addressed Dumbledore’s gay identity, and without further context, his sexuality appears to be halfheartedly glossed over and dropped from the rest of the film. Considering the prominence of Dumbledore’s character, this insensitive decision is a major oversight on behalf of screenwriters J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves.

To try and make up for where the writing lacks, one of the film’s few successes is the visually stunning “wandwork” that accompanies wizards as they cast spells. With familiar incantations and new spells, “Fantastic Beasts” carries on the legacy of the “Harry Potter” series by upholding the dazzling and enthralling depiction of magic, as well as expanding the lore of the Wizarding World.

[Related: Film review: ‘Moonshot’ follows star-crossed lovers in charming yet predictable rom-com]

Beyond this convincing “wandwork,” “Fantastic Beasts” boasts stellar special effects that are able to bring the lovable magical creatures to life, which now serve as a new lens through which to explore the Wizarding World. The computer-generated critters pull at the audiences’ heartstrings with their adorable petlike behavior – it’s hard to resist the Niffler’s endearing loyalty and Pickett the Bowtruckle’s attachment issues.

Though the film entertains with magical spectacles and its titular fantastic beasts, a weak primary conflict convolutes the storyline. Newt’s team hatches a complex, multifaceted plan to throw off Grindelwald, but in turn, the plan is hard to make sense of given that it is hardly explained. At its core, the film fails to establish a convincing conflict as it becomes clear that Newt’s team’s missions lack substance or real stakes, making the conflict both distant and irrelevant.

Similarly, the film’s sudden shift to focus on a new creature called Qilin, a magical deer with the power to judge the goodness of one’s soul, seems to abandon the cliffhanger of the previous movie which revealed the true identity of Credence Barebone, an extremely powerful wizard now aligned with Grindelwald. Rather than building upon the unveiled secrets, the film disappoints as a multitude of mysteries go unanswered in lieu of the inconsequential subplot about the Qilin.

Along with failing to address cliffhangers, one of the most glaring pitfalls of the story is the lack of character depth in the supporting roles. In the previous film, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) joins Grindelwald’s dark forces and abandons her love interest Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Now, she is confronted with the consequences of betraying Jacob, but her motives for working with Grindelwald are murky at best, and the lack of a clear answer reduces the emotional impact of her character’s internal conflict.

[Related: Film review: Playful animation elements color adolescent experience in Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’]

In addition to Queenie, Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams) is yet another two-dimensional supporting character. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” introduces Lally in connection to Nicolas Flamel, a significant figure in Wizarding World history, and this film builds upon her character by highlighting her charming personality and incorporating her backstory as a brilliant Charms professor. However, despite the potential for character development, her storyline is limited to her role as an asset on Newt’s team, leaving her as a mere footnote in the fight against Grindelwald.

Ultimately, the appeal of the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise lies purely in the world building and history of the Wizarding World. Beyond this, the films lack the magical atmosphere seen in “Harry Potter” and fail to stand out with their own charm. As the third film of the series, the latest installment does nothing more than drag out the conflict between Grindelwald and Dumbledore, reusing the same tired material without delivering a fresh perspective.

Some may say the third time’s the charm, but for “Fantastic Beasts,” the third time may be the nail in the coffin.

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Casey Lee
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