Fantastic Beasts is back. Four years on from The Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s been a difficult period for these prequels to the Harry Potter books and films. Author J K Rowling has been pilloried on social media for her views on the transgender community. Johnny Depp, who played the notorious Dark Wizard Grindelwald, had to step away after ugly revelations about his marriage to Amber Heard followed a very public libel case. Even the 2018 film itself was dubbed a critical and commercial flop.
Yet, rather like Grindelwald erasing a memory from someone’s head with a single tug of his wand, Hollywood has a great way of making us forget.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore continues on the story seamlessly, helped by returning director David Yates (remarkably, this is his seventh film in the Potter/Beasts franchise).
Depp is replaced by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, who dials it down (no manic expressions, no dyed blonde hair) to play Grindelwald. Fear not, he’s still very menacing.
“With or without you, I’ll burn down their world,” he tells his one-time friend, the wizarding supremo Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), as he plans to lay havoc to the non-magical universe.
As Dumbledore gathers a team to stop Grindelwald at all costs, it’s not going to be easy. The Dark Wizard can see snatches of the future, making him almost impossible to defeat. The only way is to hatch a series of plans to confuse him.
Central to this will be Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist played by Eddie Redmayne (and, yes, Pickett, the ‘stick-bug’ that sits in his top pocket, and the fluffy Niffler that hides in his suitcase, are ever present).
Also a part of the crack team to take down Grindelwald are Newt’s cocksure brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and charmingly besotted assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), as well as wizard Yusuf (William Nadylam) and Professor Eulalie Hicks (Jessica Williams, playing the role with real swagger).
It is Hicks who is tasked with convincing Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to join them on this risky quest. The baker from Queens — a so-called "muggle" with no magic powers — had quite the time in the earlier films, not least losing the love-of-his-life Queenie (Alison Sudol) to Grindelwald’s army. Reluctantly, he has no choice but to join Newt and co to bring Queenie to her senses. At least Dumbledore has the good grace to give him his very own wand to play with.
Scripted by Rowling and regular Potter scribe Steve Kloves, The Secrets of Dumbledore is quite a downbeat film in many ways. Perhaps it shouldn’t be any other way. With scenes set in Berlin, Grindelwald’s amassed forces and fascist-like rhetoric (“the world will hear our voice and it will be deafening,” he claims) boast less-than-subtle allusions to pre-Second World War Europe. Filming in muted colours, Yates does little to play down the comparisons.
Early on, Dumbledore implores Anton Vogel (Oliver Masucci), the German Minister of Magic, to “do what is right, not what is easy”, but “insufficient evidence” is found to convict Grindelwald of his crimes, thus clearing the way for him to stand for election as the Head of the International Confederation of Wizards — a position that will facilitate his grasp for power. Alongside him is Credence (Ezra Miller), who — like Queenie — has lost his way, left spellbound by Grindelwald.
With such a gloomy atmosphere enveloping the film, it’ll come as no surprise to learn the standout scene is one of comic relief — as Newt and Theseus evade some scorpion-like critters in a cavernous space by adopting the sort of pose you might see in Egyptian hieroglyphics. More of this would’ve been most welcome, but instead Rowling and co take us into a more sombre second half that doesn’t do the usual Hollywood trick of cranking up the pace to relentless speeds.
As the middle chapter of Rowling’s intended five-film Fantastic Beasts arc, this latest instalment rather feels like the calm before the storm. It may well make narrative sense in the context of the entire series, but seen in isolation, it feels a little underwhelming. Even a brief sojourn to Hogwarts, the wizarding school from the Harry Potter stories, doesn’t quite bring the desired chills when we’re spirited back into the Great Hall.
Yet for all its missteps, there are still delights to behold — not least the arrival of the Qilin, a deer-like creature that is said to root out purity in a person’s soul, which will become crucial to the story.
Rowling hasn’t forgotten that this series is called "Fantastic Beasts", after all, and it’s these scenes of magic and animal wonder that play best. In a film that’s sometimes an uneasy mix of politics and fantasy, The Secrets of Dumbledore at least does enough to steady the ship and get fans back on side.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is in UAE cinemas from April 28