Remember way back in the year 2000, before even the first “Harry Potter” movie had been released? Big as a cinder block and nearly as heavy, the fourth novel in J.K. Rowling’s bestselling YA series inspired fans to line up at bookstores around the country days in advance. At 734 pages, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was a monster — the biggest book many young fans had ever contemplated reading. Getting through it took effort, albeit the kind that brought deep and immediate rewards to those bewitched by the parallel reality Rowling had invented, one where wizards existed alongside the rest of us unfortunate, non-magic folk.
Well, here we are, three movies into Rowling’s convoluted big-screen prequel saga, and the series once again feels like work, only this time, the resulting pleasures will strike audiences quite differently, depending on your level of dedication to the franchise. “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is rooted deep in the mythology of Rowling’s Wizarding World, seldom slowing down long enough to explain the magic spells or strategies used by its characters. That’ll no doubt vex casual viewers, keeping them at wand’s length from the interpersonal relationships that make this grand fight for the planet worth watching. But devotees will likely adore the revelations in store, including a deeper commitment to the tragic love story between beloved Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and the wizard determined to settle a score with Muggle-kind.
Johnny Depp is out, but his character, Gellert Grindelwald, has grown more powerful than ever. Now played by Mads Mikkelsen (without addressing the switch) in a more grounded, less cartoonishly menacing vein, Grindelwald is determined to instigate a world war at roughly the same time that a certain Nazi was elected chancellor of Germany. The rise-of-fascism parallels are as unmistakable as the inspiration for the character’s new haircut, which has gone from stark white sea anemone to a greasy Hitler-style forelock.
After doing so much to lend consistency and credibility to Rowling’s vision over the course of four “Harry Potter” movies and one overwrought spinoff, director David Yates hit an unexpected low with the second installment, “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” a busy, bewildering eyesore that seemed more interested in showcasing all kinds of CG trickery than in telling an elegant and engaging story. While “The Secrets of Dumbledore” doesn’t exactly embrace simplicity, the screenplay — no longer credited to Rowling alone, but co-written by stalwart “Harry Potter” adapter Steve Kloves — feels far more focused. Happily, the execution proves that much easier to follow.
Unlike the “Harry Potter” movies, which put the fate of humankind in the hands of three boarding school-bound kids, the “Fantastic Beasts” cycle deals primarily with adult wizards in the wider early-20th-century world. Early on, Yates took this opportunity to demonstrate what mature magic practitioners are capable of — their abilities surely ought to be spectacular, even if it was hard not to feel overwhelmed watching impossible things happen. As Rowling projected the full extent of her creativity on screen, however, she left little room for audiences to use their own imaginations, depriving us of the best thing about her books.
We got constantly shape-shifting characters and others who could step through walls or teleport across countries; explosions all but destroyed entire cities, while defensive techniques protected certain wizards from being injured. There was even a spell that mass-erased witnesses’ minds, giving the filmmakers license to wreak whatever havoc they pleased, as misbehaving make-believe animals ran amok and a miserable — and incredibly dangerous — “orphan” named Credence caused trouble every time he lost his temper. (He’s played by Ezra Miller, an intense young actor whose off-screen antics could get him booted from the sequel, considering what happened to Deep.)
Like a young Luke Skywalker, Credence found himself torn between the forces of good and evil while trying to research the mystery of his origins. The final twist of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” concerned a baby bird that Credence had adopted, which abruptly transformed from a harmless-looking hatchling to a full-grown, flaming phoenix — a creature known to come to the aid of Dumbledore clan members in times of need. Three years later, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” finally reveals the nature of Credence’s connection to this family, causing his allegiance to waver between Grindelwald and Albus.
As it happens, those two competing leaders were once quite close. Gazing into the desire-reflecting Mirror of Erised in the last film, Dumbledore described himself and Grindelwald as being “more than brothers,” and flashed back to a memory of them forming a blood pact years earlier. Because of this connection — not unlike the one a violent attack will forge between Harry and Voldemort — neither Dumbledore nor Grindelwald can so much as think of hurting the other without jeopardizing his own life. Time and again, usually for the best, love overrides reason in these films.
An enchanted pact-protecting pendant complicates the showdown anyone can see coming. In order to stop Grindelwald’s power grab, Dumbledore will have to rely on proxies — namely, Newt Scamander, the endearingly awkward magizoologist embodied by Eddie Redmayne in the first two “Fantastic Beasts” movies. Grindelwald is similarly blocked but has an advantage, using a rare and highly revered dragon-deer creature called a qilin to see the future. (The character’s brutal treatment of this noble and seemingly defenseless species is incredibly difficult to watch, even if the animal doesn’t actually exist.)
Prophecies are nothing new to Rowling’s storytelling, though here we get the added wrinkle that Grindelwald sees only snatches of what’s to come, and can therefore be outwitted by “countersight” — a tactic of doing deliberately misleading things to confuse him while keeping actual intentions secret until the last moment. This is an amusing if preposterous plan, and one that nevertheless earns points for originality.
Three-fifths of the way through this series, ugly, ungainly enchantment overload is clearly the agreed-upon aesthetic, as Rowling and Kloves again come up with a plot that’s considerably more complicated than it needs to be. Take the task entrusted to Newt’s lovelorn assistant, Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates), who commissions half a dozen identical copies of her boss’s leather case, so as to disguise which one contains the qilin during the climactic scene. It’s not likely that this scheme would fool someone who can see the future. In fact, if anyone’s confused by the elaborately choreographed ruse, it is us, the audience.
That seems to be the key strategy of the “Fantastic Beasts” movies — which, incidentally, also serves what passes for magic in the real world: Distract the audience, so they don’t see the trick and are therefore fooled into believing things as they are presented. Somewhere along the way, however, this franchise stopped being fun. If the eight “Harry Potter” films left us wanting to enroll in that same school, the “Fantastic Beasts” series makes everything seem oppressive and unpleasant, teetering on the brink of a second Second World War — one that will presumably be narrowly avoided in the coming films, and which the non-magical sphere stands little chance of winning if Grindelwald ever gets his way.
Still, there’s something to be said for the way Rowling’s vision spans multiple movies, how each installment feels like binge-watching the latest season of a prestige HBO series (an adult-friendly, PG-13 alternative to “Game of Thrones”). No other film series works in such intricate multiple-installment arcs, planting details that will almost certainly pay off in forthcoming chapters. Building on what Peter Jackson did with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Rowling and Warner Bros. radically expanded the way cinema could be used to tell serialized stories, and with “Fantastic Beasts,” they continue to innovate, potentially excluding all but the most faithful, rather than actively trying to convert newcomers to what, like “Star Wars,” has an almost religious hold on its followers.