Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – an emotionally unengaging slog

The spell had been long broken before this barely tolerable third instalment

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
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Director: David Yates
Cert: 12A
Genre: Fantasy
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Katherine Waterston
Runing Time: 2 hrs 22 mins

Good heavens, is this thing still around?

After the endless fights about JK Rowling, the defenestration of Johnny Depp, the general awfulness of the last episode and – once more with a wheeze – certain global health emergencies, the third film in the Fantastic Beasts sequence seems beamed in from another, less problematic millennium. One would hardly be more disoriented to find Betty Boop on the release schedules.

Yet here it is. A quarter of a century after the first Harry Potter book, The Secrets of Dumbledore seeks to win over generations then unimagined. Good luck with that. Released in 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a busy drama rooted in a convincing recreation of Depression era New York, was many times better than such a thing needed to be. Sadly, the interminable, inexcusably Colin Farrell-free The Crimes of Grindelwald played like a plane circling the airport for three hours. Committee meetings in darkened rooms. Endless introductions to foolishly named characters. Poke me with a wand when it is over.

The best that can be said about The Secrets of Dumbledore is that the aircraft is now circling at a lower altitude. Motor cars and railway tracks are visible. An end to our torment is in sight. We may not have got Colin back, but the unappealing Depp – at his most randomly accented in Crimes of Grindelwald – has been replaced by a forgivably untaxed Mads Mikkelsen. James Newton Howard's music is nice. Will that do?

It is scarcely possible to summarise the ramshackle plot. We begin with a meeting between the still youngish Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and the calculating Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen) in a London restaurant. Much has been made of the fact that one tells the other he loved him, but, in truth, the exchange is no more homoerotic than many between SpongeBob and Squidward (and certainly less “ground-breaking” than the casually referenced same-sex relationship in Marvel’s The Eternals). The two old friends are set to represent light and dark in a coming struggle for the wizarding soul.

Later there is a meeting on a train at which various characters plot to defeat Grindelwald. Eddie Redmayne is still overdoing the eccentricity as magical zoologist Newt Scamander. Dan Fogler remains charming as muggle baker Jacob Kowalski. Alison Sudol deserves to break through as good witch Queenie Goldstein. Katherine Waterston is elsewhere as her sister.

Much of the action hangs around Grindelwald’s rising influence in a Berlin increasingly gripped by magical populism. Crowds wave banners in the street. Elections are being fixed. What is the point of positioning an obvious analogy for Nazism at the same place and time as the real thing? The result is to force us towards unanswered questions about how the fantastical fascists interact with the unseen real thing. Imagine Animal Farm with Russian revolutionaries rather than pigs.

There is a great deal of narrative padding on the way to a procedural squabble on the steps of an ancient pile in Bhutan. Scamander has a never-ending routine with a bunch of magical scorpions in an underground lair. Dumbledore interacts with haunted mirrors at his brother’s pub. Mikkelsen demonstrates that, when tackling such thinly drawn villains, it is enough to merely be very Danish for a few hours. Secrets of Dumbledore is not quite so overpopulated as Crimes of Grindelwald, but some further scything or characters would have done no harm.

Through it all the technical work remains of the highest quality. It seems a shame that Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont's lavish production design and Colleen Atwood's gorgeous costumes – both leaning into unreal golden-era Hollywood – are wasted on such an emotionally unengaging slog. Maybe Newton Howard could write them an old-school musical before gowns and flats are flung into Warner Brothers' attic.

No, not a Harry Potter musical. We have endured enough.

Opens on April 8th