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Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) looks at “Pickett the Bowtruckle” (a little green leafy CGI beastie hanging from a branch) in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore Photo: Warner Bros.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore lets a zombified franchise lurch forward

The long-delayed Potter prequel drops Johnny Depp and adds more … electoral scandal?

When does a studio decide to stop making sequels? The objectively correct answer is “When the franchise stops making money.” The confused, misshapen Harry Potter universe sequel Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore tests that conventional wisdom. Warner Bros. had every reason to abandon this series two films in, while they were $600 million dollars ahead. Among the roadblocks they faced in getting this third film made: a divisive marquee star Warner Bros. compelled to step down due to allegations of domestic abuse, a supporting player with a track record of physical assault and distressing headlines, and a a creator/screenwriter burning through her public goodwill quickly and intently enough to suggest a self-abasement fetish. And for bonuses: an unwieldy ongoing narrative that’s openly lost interest in its original premise, and a pandemic delaying production nearly a full year.

But so long as cash is green and galleons are gold, the series shall lurch onward. The third installment continues to expand the wizarding world’s geography and history, getting hopelessly lost along the way. The Fantastic Beasts spinoffs began as wonderstruck adventures acquainting mild-mannered naturalist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with a menagerie of CGI critters. He’s now been remanded to the margins of his own franchise (and its poster). His presence has been reduced to a handful of whimsical interludes that feel severely out of place in what’s otherwise a morose political thriller. An evident attempt to right the ship has turned into a calamitous case of mission drift, as a property with no identity travels in nonsensical circles, looking for a sustainable new direction.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner) walk along a twisted, buckled outdoor hallway in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner bros.

The particulars of the magical electoral process figure more prominently in Secrets of Dumbledore than the average viewer might expect from a fun-for-the-whole-family fantasy. While candidates for Supreme Head of the International Confederation of Wizards do campaign and rally support from their constituents, there’s no voting involved. This undemocratic process instead falls to the judgment of a small, scaly, mutant baby deer, revered for its unerring ability to sense the purity of a person’s character. The wizards just line up the prospective office-holders on top of a mountain in Bhutan (which really drives home the Kundun vibe of this hilariously arbitrary system), plop the cryptid on the ground in front of them, and wait to see who it acknowledges. Say what you will about America’s electoral college — at least it can’t be kidnapped, killed, brought back to life, and brainwashed.

This is the head-smacker of an evil plan enacted by ethnofascist Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp), unmistakably framed as Wizard Hitler in his third-party populist grab for power during the late 1930s. Viewers schooled in Potter lore will also recall him as the one-time paramour of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), a romantic past addressed in terms frank and unambiguous enough to deserve some recognition, even if corporate cowardice continues to forbid them from kissing.

In the throes of love years earlier, they signed a blood oath that they’d never harm each other, but Dumbledore takes it upon himself to #stopthesteal, and he taps Newt for a crucial mission. Their dynamic smacks of Nick Fury and Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the smell of capes-and-tights trend-chasing is all over the place in this movie, particularly in the hazily defined magic that functions more and more like superpowers.

Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) draws a memory out of someone’s head with his wand in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Tasked with apprehending a not-interfered-with, still-impartial twin of the sacred Picking Deer, Scamander assembles a ragtag crew of characters that somehow still feel undeveloped even after two and half hours of watching them onscreen. The series’ emotional core, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, the only one enjoying himself), comes to grips with the poorly rationalized defection of his beloved Queenie (Alison Sudol), who went over to the dark side in the previous film. As spunky Hogwarts educator Lally, Jessica Williams takes a larger role this time around, doubling down on a painful mid-Atlantic accent. Markedly not present is Katherine Waterston, who must have an excellent agent. As Newt explains in a shoehorned bit of dialogue, her character — his love interest Porpentina — “is busy,” presumably dying on her way back to her home planet.

Newt’s convoluted, anticlimactic quest to secure and deliver his precious cargo lacks the delighted curiosity that lent the first Fantastic Beasts a much-needed bump in charm. One creatively staged setpiece pits Newt and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) against a crustaceous leviathan in a panopticon-style prison tower, where the boys engage in a silly crab-walk, reminding viewers that playing funny every now and again won’t hurt anyone. Apart from that, Newt’s piece of the plot has the same blandness as its aesthetic: Series director David Yates conveys that this part of the story is set in the past by grading everything to a desiccated gray or brown. It’s difficult to imagine a real-life child being dazzled by this movie, and it’s depressing to realize that the intended audience here is probably IP loyalists too old for kid stuff, yet unwilling to leave this universe behind.

Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) leans against a grimy bar as if pondering his secrets in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

Like so many franchise titans long past their sell-by date, the Potter cinematic empire faces an existential crisis around the question of whether it can compel younger viewers to care about its next generation of heroes. Taking a cue from the latter-day Star Wars movies’ fixation on the Skywalker lineage, J.K. Rowling and co-writer Steve Kloves connect everything to the canon their audience has already invested in, shifting Dumbledore to the fore and focusing on his fractious family tree. Harry Potter and Voldemort are still glints in their respective parents’ eyes, so Dumbledore is these movies’ only anchor to the beloved original series. So naturally we’ll want to get to know his estranged blue-collar brother, right? If that’s the assumption Rowling and Kloves are working from, Dumbledore’s much-touted secrets need to be juicier than “He has a nephew.”

With the continuation of this franchise already assured, its pivot away from Newt and toward Dumbledore is bound to continue, and so is the way the story keeps delving further into inconsequential mythos, as the timeline inches toward World War II. But insofar as this is a movie about finding hope in a bleak time, it inspires little for its own future. The studio and creators behind these movies will keep trying to be whatever they surmise the public wants. Failing that, they’re willing to settle for turning them into whatever we’re willing to pay for.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore opens in theaters on April 6.

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