When the opening title of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore appears on screen, the first part is initially barely visible, in tiny letters compared to the much larger second half. It's a clear, immediate indication of the direction that this Harry Potter prequel series has taken, straying further from the whimsical adventure tone of its inspiration and emphasizing blockbuster bombast and franchise expansion. There are very few fantastic beasts in this third installment, which is full of fan-baiting references and appearances tying it even closer to Harry Potter continuity.
There aren't a lot of secrets, either, which makes the title doubly misleading, although it does promise and deliver plenty of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), the powerful wizard who will one day become the headmaster of Hogwarts, where Harry and his friends enroll to study magic. In the 1930s era of this movie, though, Dumbledore is a younger man, troubled by the rise of his rival and onetime lover Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). After years of hints and promises from franchise creator J.K. Rowling, The Secrets of Dumbledore finally makes the romantic relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald central and unambiguous, although the intimate moments between the two are all clouded by talk of magical battles.
And where is the ostensible main character of this series as Dumbledore and Grindelwald face off over the future of the wizarding world? He's there, too, although increasingly superfluous in his own movies. Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his briefcase full of (mostly unseen) magical creatures are part of Dumbledore's team assembled to defeat Grindelwald, who's agitating for an all-out war between wizards and humans. Also part of the team is bumbling human baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who's been with the series since its first installment, although previous central character Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is MIA for almost the entire movie, given only a flimsy explanation of what she's busy doing while the other characters are saving the world.
The Secrets of Dumbledore is less hopelessly convoluted than 2018's second installment, The Crimes of Grindelwald, but it's still full of largely meaningless reveals and fakeouts, all constrained by the knowledge of where events will end up by the time period of the Harry Potter movies. Replacing the ousted Johnny Depp (one of several problematic figures associated with this franchise), Mikkelsen brings more serious menace to Grindelwald, and he and Law have some tender interactions. But there's no emotional core to these movies on par with the three main characters in the Harry Potter series, which always formed a compelling coming-of-age story even when the grand spectacle rang hollow.
Newt remains a dull, slightly annoying character, thanks to Redmayne's twitchy, whispery presence, and the previously sweet love story between Jacob and his witch fiancee Queenie (Alison Sudol) is sidelined so that Queenie can become a generic Grindelwald lackey, without any of the moral conflict she experienced in the previous movie. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one of the Harry Potter movies, joins Rowling as co-writer, perhaps streamlining some of the author's more unwieldy ideas, but The Secrets of Dumbledore is still full of half-formed concepts, including a sloppy allegory that positions Grindelwald as a sort of Nazi stand-in.
Director David Yates, now on his seventh franchise movie, delivers some of the requisite large-scale set pieces, but most of The Secrets of Dumbledore is a lot of flashy bluster signifying nothing. It's poorly paced and overly busy, crammed full of characters whose motives are jumbled and whose goals are only incrementally advanced, with any actual resolution postponed until the disappointingly inevitable next chapter. ♦FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE