The Wizarding World Heats Up with FANTASTIC BEASTS 3

THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is the best of the series so far, though still not boxing in HARRY POTTER’s weight class

When last we left the franchise, the villainous Grindelwald (then portrayed by Johnny Depp) had escaped from Ministry custody and set about amassing an army of followers. Among them were the story’s two most conflicted characters, Credence (Ezra Miller), a powerful young wizard with a secret unknown heritage, and Queenie (Alison Sudol), fatefully splitting her from “the team” including Muggle boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler), sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), and friend Newt (Eddie Redmayne).

The franchise has had a little trouble finding its footing but the Queenie-Jacob romance was by far its best and most endearing element, making the cliffhanger ending all the more compelling.

The Secrets of Dumbledore picks up some time later with Jacob, Newt and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and others teaming up under the leadership of Dumbledore (Jude Law) to fight back against the growing threat of Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen). Meanwhile, as the mad wizard’s evil comes to light, Queenie is starting to question her decision.

Mikkelsen ably takes the reins from Depp as the big bad, and while the recasting is unfortunate, he’s more than capable. It’s a good thing, because the narrative is transitioning somewhat to be less about a group of misfit wizards and more about Dumbledore and Grindelwald.

Although not without flaws, this third entry in the Fantastic Beasts saga is the best so far, and the “Wizarding World” is also starting to feel like more of a reality with the series continuing to have more of an international flavor with significant parts of this story taking place in Asia (Nepal, by the look of it). Though at this point in the series, it still doesn’t feel like these films can step out of the huge shadow cast by the Harry Potter movies which remain markedly more fun and engaging.

But for Potter fans, this third entry does feel a step closer to playing the classics. There’s more humor peppered in, Hogwarts features prominently, and everyone’s favorite headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, graduates from a supporting character to the primary cast. We also spend time with his brother Aberforth, which is fun considering his relationship with Albus was somewhat shrouded in mystery and only hinted at in the Harry Potter movies.

Brotherhood, or family, is a theme which comes to the forefront of this entry, not only with the Dumbledores but also with the Scamander boys. The last film explored their prickly relationship, but both are now fighting together, united in cause by the murder of their mutually beloved Leta Lestrange at the hands of Grindelwald.

Throughout the Fantastic Beasts series, the callbacks to Harry Potter are something of a double-edged sword. They’re easily among the most interesting and engaging parts, but that also somewhat undermines them as their own separate entities, showing how much darker and dourer these films are by comparison, somewhat more akin to grownup political/crime thrillers rather than whimsical family fare.

On that note, one particular scene of animal violence was so shocking to me that I think it bears mentioning. The camera cuts away as villain Grindelwald slashes a newborn magical creature’s throat to collect its blood, which pools on the ground. It’s a cute little thing, and in the narrative this species is even defined by being particularly pure of heart, making it even more unsettling — far more than anything we’ve seen in these generally family-friendly movies so far.

I’m also a bit perplexed that Tina, one of the major characters, is mostly sidelined on this go-round. Between a number of new characters and the “brotherhood” theme that seems to be coming into play, perhaps something had to give. I’ve also heard the rumor that she’s being punished for off-camera criticisms of creator J. K. Rowling, which if true is deeply unfortunate. There is one silver lining; the film’s ending makes it clear that Tina still has an important role to play in the coming story.

All things considered, this is a mostly good movie and a step up for the Fantastic Beasts sequence, all of which I enjoy but don’t (Harry Potter) love. The audience I was with was definitely into it, loudly laughing at Newt’s humorous animal-behavioral interactions and erupting into applause at the film’s conclusion.

Perhaps that’s in part because the climax feels fairly conclusive, wrapping up, at least temporarily, most of the story’s major conflicts. There aren’t really a lot of loose threads left to chase, so with two movies reportedly left in the Fantastic Beasts arc, it’ll be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

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