There aren't a lot of surprises in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Even the long-awaited acknowledgement that Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), the future Hogwarts headmaster, once had a gay schoolboy affair with future fascist Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen now stepping in for the departed Johnny Depp) is hardly unexpected. Potterworld creator J.K. Rowling already gay-conned Dumbledore for an approving book-tour audience back in 2007. ("I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy," she said.)
So the gay thing isn't much of a secret (although it will be in China, where the government demanded and received cuts of that plot point). What this third Fantastic Beasts movie does have, once again, is an overabundance of both characters and plot. Loyal fans will already be familiar with Dumbledore and Newt Scamander—the magical-creatures keeper played by Eddie Redmayne—and maybe Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the lovable Muggle baker who has blundered into Rowling's wild world of wizards and witches. But how many casual viewers, four years after the last Fantastic Beasts film, will clearly remember Jacob's love jones for half-blood sorceress Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol); or Queenie's sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), for whom Newt pines; or maybe the meaning of the term Obscurus (think Credence Barebone—played by Ezra Miller again, the darkly troubled young wizard who is actually, as we learn here, an unloved member of a prominent magical family).
Just the prospect of chasing around after all these characters is taxing in advance, especially since so many of them are scurrying very far afield, through the magical precincts of Paris, Berlin, New York, and—what the hey—Bhutan. And what are they scurrying after? Well, Albus wants them to lay hands on Grindelwald, who's plotting to steal an upcoming election to pick a new supreme wizard and then to go all Nazi (the year is 1927) and impose his will on both the magical and the Muggle worlds. Albus would take on this mission himself, but he and Grindelwald set up a blood pact in their youth that prevents them from ever fighting each other. So Albus dispatches Newt and his brother, Ministry of Magic operative Theseus (Callum Turner, Emma); the wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who's been embedded in Grindelwald's dastardly circle; the baker Kowalski; and the elegant professor and witch Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams, bringing a lively jolt of sass to the proceedings) to bring the Grindelwald problem to an end. That's basically it, plot-wise.
What really distinguishes the film is the new heights of truly excellent CGI that it scales, with artistry so complex and seamlessly rendered that you can't help but be put in mind of the long-gone time when computer imagery really did seem to be a species of magic. There are callbacks to the old Harry Potter films (a sky-high shot of a locomotive pulling a train through snowy countryside, a majestic view of Hogwarts on its craggy cliff) and of course some fantastic beasts, too, like the tiny Qilin, a creature capable of peering into the future and into a person's soul as well.
It's the action scenes, though, that really dazzle—the chases through highly complex environments, often through swarms of swirling detritus, are marvels of painstaking digital animation, as are many passing effects, like the brief reflection of a character's face in a small pool of blood.
Then there are Colleen Atwood's knockout costumes—miracles of high-end drape and texture that are a wonder from beginning to end of the picture.
But who really needs this movie? That's a question that's been harped on ever since the Beasts franchise was willed into being by Rowling six years ago, and this film raises it again. Since Warner Bros. took in endless stacks of money over the course of the 10 years it took to produce the eight Harry Potter films, there was zero chance the studio would turn away the author of the books on which they were based when she wished to keep her Hollywood adventure going. Rowling scripted the first two Fantastic Beasts films herself, and when they were found by some critics to be wanting, Potter vet Steve Kloves was brought in to punch up the writing. Unfortunately, the result has continued to be problematic. The story—which is projected to produce two more installments—still feels like a faint echo of the Potter series, with characters that are considerably less charming and a narrative that's faint of heart and not terribly interesting. And Secrets, marking the midway point of the series, naturally has no conclusion, either. Another letdown.