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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore review – borderline incomprehensible sequel

The days of real Harry Potter magic feel very far behind us with this jumbled and poorly edited return to the Wizarding World

After the maelstrom of loosely-threaded and unsatisfyingly-resolved plot points that was the second Fantastic Beasts film – The Crimes of Grindelwald – this latest entry seemed like a chance for the series to reset and recentre itself. Sadly, The Secrets of Dumbledore doubles down on the circuitous plotting that made its predecessor such a chore, telling a borderline incomprehensible story that never decides what, or even who, it’s really about.

Following the fiery showdown at the end of the last film, The Secrets of Dumbledore opens with its heroes on a war footing. Magic zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is on the trail of a rare beast that will help bring balance to the wizarding world, while Dumbledore himself (Jude Law) formulates a plan to take down dark wizard – and Dumbledore’s former lover – Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). As previously established, a powerful spell prevents Grindelwald and Dumbledore from striking at each other directly, so the events of the film basically play out as a very hard-to-follow chess game, dark and light moving their pawns about.

In practice, this is absolute chaos, the script (this time with veteran Harry Potter adapter Steve Kloves joining JK Rowling on writing duties) contriving that, due to Grindelwald’s powers of foresight, all the heroes have to constantly act impulsively and unpredictably. The result is that you’re never sure what people are doing or why they’re doing it, meaning it's impossible to care. Meanwhile, awful editing exacerbates the problem and makes the two-and-a-quarter hour runtime feeling much longer.

There’s just way too much to fit in here. There are dark secrets of the Dumbledore family tree, Grindelwald’s very Hitler-esque rise to power (a lot of the film is even set in late-20s Berlin), the star-crossed romance of muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler) and newly evil mind-reading witch Queenie (Alison Sudol), not to mention the magical critter-hunt that gives this franchise its now mostly discarded name. Nothing gets the breathing room it needs to develop into something meaningful – on top of the already mentioned plots there are a bunch of purposeless side-stories – all leading to an anticlimactic ending.

As with the previous two films, The Secrets of Dumbledore is at its best when it’s dealing with the actual “Fantastic Beasts.” They’re the source of all the film's genuinely touching moments and, perhaps most importantly, their various styles and abilities feel like a meaningful expansion of the Harry Potter world instead of just fan service. It doesn’t even matter that the effects aren’t as photo-real as you’d maybe like – the creatures are expressive and soulful, especially a sort of twinkly-eyed armadillo-deer hybrid that is just lovely.

The humans are more of a mixed bag. Redmayne still doesn’t feel like a blockbuster leading man and though Law has an undeniable presence as Young Dumbledore, a weirdly inconsistent accent undercuts his performance. Mikkelsen is an improvement from Johnny Depp as Grindelwald, using his natural gravitas to good effect, but he can look a bit bored whenever Grindelwald is dealing with his very boring minions. It is also to be commended that Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship is never referred to as anything other than romantic – no conservative territory-appeasing couching here – and both Law and Mikkelsen are at their best when sharing the screen with each other.

As with the last entry, it is a bit baffling that Warner Bros. can’t get Fantastic Beasts to actually work. With a creative team entirely made up of the people who made Harry Potter such a wild success – longtime director David Yates returns again – the inability to recapture any of the same magic is both sad and frustrating (why is the colour palette so endlessly grey?). The original plan was to make five of these, but I can’t imagine this will do anything to increase the public appetite for another four or five hours of this story.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is in UK cinemas from 8 April.

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