Review: Potter prequels peter out in ‘Dumbledore’

ABOVE: “The Secrets of Dumbledore.” Photo via the “Fantastic Beasts” Facebook page.

Time always flew in J.K. Rowling‘s Wizarding World but it has lately seemed to catch up to the Potter pop cultural sensation, whose anti-transgender views have cast the author in a new light for many LGBTQ and ally fans. Those long lines outside bookstores are a long time ago now.

The books stopped but the movies never did. The “Fantastic Beasts” prequels, now up to three with “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” have soldiered on, even if the fever surrounding Pottermania – at least among less diehard Muggles – has dissipated.

There’s always been a sense of dislocation about the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. The Potter films – boarding school movies with magic thrown in – swirled around life at Hogwarts. But where is the heart of “Fantastic Beasts“? The prequels have a foot in 1920s and ’30s New York, with world war storm clouds all around, but they flitter anxiously between fantasy realms far and wide.

Who even are our most central characters? “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” perhaps seeking its own clarity on the issue, pushes Jude Law’s gay wizard to the fore. We began these movies with Eddie Redmayne’s magizoologist Newt Scamander. Perhaps he was always meant to slide to the side, but, either way, I think Redmayne’s meek and mannered performance has made Newt less of a protagonist to hang a story on and more of a sentimental mascot alongside a troupe of characters – including the baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, increasingly central) and the law-enforcing wizard Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, more on the outs).

The villain, at least, has been steadfast – the character, anyway, if not the actor playing him. After two films with Johnny Depp in the role, Mads Mikkelsen takes over as the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, a onetime friend and love interest of Dumbledore’s. Grindelwald’s rise has been the overarching drama to the “Fantastic Beasts,” an ominous series framed around the menacing power grab of a tyrant who, with echoes of fascism then and now, wants the magical world to rule over Muggles.

Where “Fantastic Beasts“ may ultimately reside is in a prequel netherworld – never truly in Potter land but instead in some contrived next-door realm that, at times, seems to exist purely to capitalize on a potent patch of intellectual property. Despite a great deal of talent and craft, the purpose of these movies has never felt like much beyond keeping the Potter train running.

Maybe to help steer “Fantastic Beasts” back on course, this is the first franchise iteration with a script not credited entirely to Rowling. Alongside the author this time is Steve Kloves, who wrote or co-wrote all but one of the Potter movies. You could say that “The Secrets of Dumbledore,“ directed by series regular David Yates, is comparably more straightforward than its predecessors. But over-complication has been the nature of these movies – big, teaming blockbusters designed to marry hefty CGI effects with even weightier political allegory.

“Dangerous times favor dangerous men,” intones Dumbledore.

It’s a good line, and “The Secrets of Dumbledore” doesn’t skimp on proclamations of good and evil. You can’t say that Yates’ movie isn’t trying – really trying – to conjure something substantial. It opens, compellingly, with a meeting between Dumbledore and Grindelwald and a confession of love. It’s a laudable moment for how it’s handled so straightforwardly. But their former bond doesn’t especially resonate – a problem considering that much of what follows is colored by their tragic disconnection. Mikkelsen is a powerhouse actor but here makes for a fairly bland presence.

There are pockets of feeling and missed chances for romance, too, among other characters – most notably Jacob and Queenie (Alison Sudol), who are largely separate from one another this time. But overall, a spark is missing. Some of the performers and scene add a lift. Jessica Williams brightens the movie whenever she’s in it. One kaleidoscopic showdown on a Berlin street could rival anything Marvel has produced.

But “The Secrets of Dumbledore,“ lacking in much magic, is a bit of a bore. There are many differences between the Potter films and these but as I pondered what was missing among all the characters and creatures of this “Fantastic Beasts,” the question occurred to me: Where are the kids? Sure, these films could be intended for Potter readers who have grown into young adulthood, and more grown-up battles may have been a natural progression. But what fun is a world of wizards with only a bunch of grave, adult faces? A sense of wonder may have gone out the window, breaking a spell.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some fantasy action/violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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