‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ Review: The Franchise Finally Finds Its Footing

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has not had the easiest journey. Based on a slender volume of in-universe lore, it was author J.K. Rowling’s attempt to expand the so-called Wizarding World by focusing, at least initially, on a character almost wholly unrelated to Harry Potter: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward, fumbling zoologist who works for the Ministry of Magic and who collects wild magical animals. Of course, this being Rowling, by the second movie, there was a visit to Hogwarts, the introduction of a young Dumbledore (played by Jude Law), and the emergence of Grindelwald (initially played by Johnny Depp, now Mads Mikkelsen), a famous character in the Potter mythology. The response from audiences and critics was middling, but it still made enough money to continue, even though its creator was outed as a transphobic bigot, Depp was removed for alleged spousal abuse, and Ezra Miller (who plays a major role in the saga) continues to get into legal hot water.

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All of which leads us to the newest film, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” Part natural progression, part dramatic course correction, it’s the kind of fun, lighthearted adventure that the series probably should have been in the first place and hopefully will continue to be (there are two more films supposedly planned).

At the beginning of “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” Newt is hunting for an extremely rare animal – a deer-creature with eyes so big and emotive they put Bambi to shame. Of course, almost immediately, he is ambushed by some dark wizards (including Miller’s Credence), who kill the mother and make off with the baby. Newt narrowly escapes, and shortly thereafter is recruited by Dumbledore, along with his old Muggle baker buddy Jacob (Dan Folger), Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and a new character – American witch Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams, who actively embraces the vernacular/syntax of the period in a really fun way). Forming a kind of prototypical Dumbledore’s Army, they aim to get to the bottom of what Grindelwald (now played by Mikkelsen) is planning and, if possible, thwart his attempts. Their adventures take them from Germany, where you get to see the steely, Art Deco-looking Ministry of Magic (the movie is set on the eve of World War II), to an ancient temple in the Himalayas, where a magical ceremony is taking place.

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Much in the same way that the “Fast and Furious” franchise altered its DNA to maintain momentum, going from a streetcar-racing movie to a spy/heist template, so too does ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ evoking a sort of magical world version of “Mission: Impossible,” with a team of likeminded wizards (and a very game Muggle) attempting a series of capers to foil the villain.

Instead of being the main character, a mousy weirdo who has a collection of bizarre pets, Newt has become something of a second fiddle or at least more part of the ensemble. And what’s more, his extensive knowledge of magical creatures pays off. The animals feel more like actual creatures, and his understanding and camaraderie with them leads to some delightful, unexpected scenarios. (There’s a great moment where he rescues his brother from an underground jail littered with tiny, scorpion-like creatures. He uses a hypnotic dance that’s this far away from being “The Carlton.”) Instead of a grandiose story being fashioned around the character, he’s slotted into a larger, livelier narrative. And it works.

Much of this has undoubtedly to do with Steve Kloves, a longtime “Harry Potter” franchise stalwart who has rejoined the team and has a co-writer credit along with Rowling. Kloves keenly understands how to fashion the characters and how to properly dramatize what Rowling fashioned so well in the books – a world in which the magical is mundane, and the threat of something darker and more evil is always simmering just beneath the surface. Kloves is also the one who probably was insistent on so many contemporary (and progressive) themes – a madman absolved of his crimes who runs for office via a rigged election, toxic conspiracy theories running amok, and the early onset of a major global cataclysm – while also maintaining the fact that Dumbledore is a gay man who previously had a romance with Grindelwald. Yes, it’s pretty gay!

Oh, and for the Potter obsessives, there are definitely some delicious Dumbledore secrets. And yes, they are revealed.

And maybe the much-improved script, relying less heavily on leaden mythological backstory and instead focusing on a more propulsive plot, brought out the best in people. Director David Yates, who has been carrying the Harry Potter torch since the fifth film in the main franchise (he’s only directed a single non-Potter film since 2006, 2016’s underrated “The Legend of Tarzan”), feels enlivened by the new material. It’s easily his best-directed film since the penultimate Potter installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1,” and the cast seems reinvigorated, too, even if some of them sat this one out (Katherine Waterston only shows up for a cameo). Even James Newton Howard’s score is zippier than it has been in the previous two entries.

It can be said, with some certainty, that ‘Fantastic Beasts’ has finally found its footing. This latest entry is the most fun and most buoyant in the relatively young series. And it’s enough to make you actually look forward to a subsequent installment (should there be one) instead of actively dreading it. “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” pulled off the most impressive magic trick of all: making you care about this franchise. [B]