de facto film reviews 1.5 stars

Recent years have not been kind to the Wizarding World brand. From creator JK Rowling sabotaging her legacy, outing herself as a transphobic bigot. There’s the ongoing legal troubles for Johnny Depp, forcing the studio to fire the actor and replacing him with Mads Mikkelsen. Not to mention the declining box office numbers and waining audience reception to the most previous Fantastic Beasts, causing the creative team to go full damage control in attempts to salvage the now-tainted brand of a once-beloved franchise. And recently, co-star Ezra Miller was arrested after a seemingly severe mental breakdown. It’s a situation no studio, or individual, would like to be apart of. Now that the third film in this prequel series has arrived, it’s clear this is an attempt to recoup the damaged brand and put out an inoffensive nothing burger of a film that seeks to please everyone, while instead pleasing no one.

The villainous Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) is moving to seize all control of the Wizarding World, in hopes of wiping out the muggle race. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) alongside a team of wizards, and one muggle, to put a stop to Grindelwald’s reign. This third installment of the Fantastic Beasts franchise marks the return of Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves to assist Rowling in retooling the narrative and to deliver a more crowd pleasing film than the monotonous, tonally  schizophrenic second film, Crimes of Grindelwald.

There’s more humor here, with some cute beasties offering spurts of magic Potter fans crave and a more comprehensible storyline. Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, the sole muggle on the team of wizards, remains a highpoint with his dialed-in charm and the character’s greater sense of purpose than in the previous film. New cast member Jessica Williams (Booksmart) adds some additional charisma to the cast and the increased screen time towards Jude Law’s Dumbledore is well-utilized. Mads Mikkelsen is a vast improvement over Depp’s comatose performance, despite the character still being a generic villain. The moments between Law and Mikkelsen, namely the stellar and subdued opening sequence, have a certain spark that the entire film lacks. The two veteran actors have a smoldering rapport with one another that makes you long for more moments between them. Any tweak in the story structure or character development isn’t enough to save an overtly dull experience.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is just as soulless as the previous films. Despite reigning in on the endless plot lines from the past film, there’s still very little to care about. The story still has no urgency at all and is sluggishly paced making the 142 minute runtime full almost twice the length. The vast and imaginative world the film takes place in never feels real or tactile. The film is surrounded by the same gloomy digital artifice that makes the color palette resemble dirty bath water.

This is the third film is a supposed planned five film series — I’d be shocked if there was enough money here to green light another one of these — and most characters have no arc, no real breakthrough in plot development. Most characters are in the same place by the end of the film as they were when it started. There’s also the much-talked about relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. While yes, the film does explicitly state that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers, however we never get any deeper than the brief remarks of what once was, no reason what drew them together, no real characteristics, in a callous move to try and celebrate its faux-progressivism. Law and Mikkelsen do the best they can to bridge the gaps, but if you think that element of the film is critical, look none other than to China who only had to censor six seconds of references to make it past their bigoted censorship.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a marginal step up from its predecessors, but is still eons away from the magic of the original Potter films. If you can get past the endless off-screen controversies, you still don’t have a compelling enough film to warrant its own existence.