The wizarding world was not doing well when last visited, in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (2018). It was 1927, in Europe, and the evil Gellert Grindelwald was intent on setting off a war between wand wielders and us mere Muggles. That an actual war was in the offing in that part of the actual world was just one of the elements that made “Crimes” seem grim and plodding. Certainly, it felt like a disappointment after “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016), the first movie in the franchise spun off from the “Harry Potter” series.
So it’s a happy task to report that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a marked improvement on “Crimes.” David Yates directed, as he did the two previous installments and the last four “Potter” movies. This one may well be better than “Where to Find Them,” which was a mite busy for its own good. Kicking off a franchise can have that effect.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is back, as are his comic-relief Muggle pal Jacob (Dan Fogler), Newt’s brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), and, as the title indicates, Albus Dumbledore. As in “Crimes,” he’s ably played by Jude Law. The most notable new character is wizard Lally Hicks (an appealing Jessica Williams, who speaks with the most clipped diction this side of Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hudsucker Proxy”).
The biggest change from the previous movie isn’t an addition but a replacement. Grindelwald returns, but this time played by Mads Mikkelsen, not Johnny Depp. Depp was creepy. Mikkelsen is sinister. There’s something sorrowful about his Grindelwald. This makes him more interesting than Depp did, but less compelling. Pick your poison.
J.K. Rowling revealed in 2009 that Dumbledore was gay. Here it gets mentioned onscreen for the first time and figures in the plot. (The mention comes straightaway, so noting it here isn’t much of a spoiler.) When young, Dumbledore and Grindelwald were in love, which adds a nicely complicating emotional element to the story.
The International Confederation of Wizards is set to choose a new supreme head, with the election to be held in Bhutan. ”Secrets” also goes to London, Berlin, New York, Grindelwald’s Austrian castle, and, yes, Hogwarts. The producers did not stint on sets. It should be noted that the movie looks great. There’s so much skill on display that sheer craft becomes no small source of viewing satisfaction.
One guess who wants to be supreme head, and it’s not Ted Cruz. Well, he probably would like the job, but he’s not the guy I’m thinking of. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me,” Grindelwald tells Dumbledore. Maybe, maybe not.
Rowling wrote the first two “Fantastic Beasts” by herself. On “Secrets,” she collaborated with Steve Kloves. Kloves did the scripts for all but one of the “Potter” movies. Might that have something to do with the improvement here? The “Potter” movies were long, but they never felt swollen. They couldn’t afford to, since they had to condense such very long books. With “Beasts,” there isn’t that reducing rigor. “Secrets” is better at reaching for it than its predecessors were. Two more movies in the franchise have been announced. Fingers crossed that Kloves stays involved.
The most interesting “Fantastic Beasts” character is also the scariest: Credence Barebone (Rowling really does have a genius for names). Credence played a pivotal role in the first two movies. Here his backstory gets revealed, and it’s a doozy. Ezra Miller manages to make Credence both touching and disturbing. In that regard, he’s a throwback to Alan Rickman’s Snape in the “Potter” movies.
A different sort of throwback is the rise-of-fascism vibe that did so much to unsettle the previous movie. “He doesn’t want to lead you,” Newt says of Grindelwald. “He wants you to follow.” The campaign rallies and air of barely suppressed violence make plain the Nazi parallel. Rather than elevating or deepening the story, the comparison trivializes history. “Secrets” would have been better off playing up its humor. A bit involving copy-cat dancing scorpions (I’ll wait while you process that) is quite funny, as is Jacob trying to explain to Newt and company what Three-card Monte is. Hey, if you’re a wizard the odds are always in your favor.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE
Directed by David Yates. Written by J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Dan Fogler, Jessica Williams. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 143 minutes. PG-13 (fantasy action/violence).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.