We’re now midway through the five-movie “Fantastic Beasts” series, a sort of prequel/cousin to the Harry Potter world created by J.K. Rowling, and the most enthusiasm I can muster is that it’s all lovely to look at. Set in a magical version of the 1930s, David Yates’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is full of glorious coats (Colleen Atwood’s costumes are, as always, perfection) and snow-covered landscapes and cozy train cars. And the magic, a lovely supporting character in the story, provides perpetual delight: teapots pouring themselves, fantastical creatures such as a bird that puffs up like a balloon, people appearing and disappearing with the dramatic flick of a wand.
All of this is a lot of fun to watch; pity it isn’t in the service of a good story (and pity that, if you haven’t seen the previous two films — or even if you have — you may well have no idea what’s going on). Basically what we have here is the youngish Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, displaying nice gravitas and excellent coat-wearing), years before young Harry was even born, trying to assemble a league of followers to fight the evil magic of Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp in the role and reminding us that once a Bond villain, always a Bond villain). It’s a fairly motley crew that also includes twitterpated Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), new Charms professor Lally Hicks (an appropriately charming Jessica Williams) and more.
Along the way, we learn some background about Dumbledore and Grindelwald, via some very charged tea-drinking and Law saying cryptic things like, “His pain is his poem.” We meet a delightful new magical beast called the Qilin (pronounced like chillin’, which led to a lot of unintended misunderstandings on my part) and pay a visit to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, where the Great Hall looks as impressive as ever. And we have some fun watching Redmayne in a cave doing a sidestepping dance with malevolent crustaceans, during which I pondered that Malevolent Crustaceans would be a good name for a band. The movie is long, and there’s lots of space for pondering.
Ultimately, this “Fantastic Beasts” has some moments of charm and energy, but falls prey to the same problem the two previous movies did: a story that’s both too complicated and unintriguing; in short, not well told. There are just too many characters, or maybe it’s that the characters aren’t sufficiently defined; despite having seen the previous films, many of them seemed to me like unmemorable strangers. The film, which uses both the director (Yates) and screenwriter (Steve Kloves, with Rowling) of many of the “Harry Potter” movies, is clearly trying to create that same magic. Sometimes, a spell only works once.
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