Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)
Return to the magic.
The problem with J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts series is that the higher-ups haven’t yet realized that nobody’s interested in world-building spinoffs that have very little to do with the famous books that spawned the entire Wizarding World IP. True, seeing how the magical world operated in the 1920s/30s is kinda cool, but not as a lynchpin for an entire franchise. Fans would much rather be revisiting beloved characters like Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Albus Dumbledore, who’s been relegated to a second-tier player here. As far as prequels are concerned, all Potterheads really want to see is what went down between Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and fascist wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). Although we do get to witness this here, it’s been inserted around a storyline that people have minimal investment in.
After watching this third entry of Fantastic Beasts, The Secrets of Dumbledore, one thing’s become clear: three films into this series, and I couldn’t care less about any of the characters. The protagonist, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), has had next to no growth as a character and has been given little motivation. Neither has his muggle sidekick Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who basically operates as an audience surrogate. Granted, there’s been some attempt at making Jacob a three-dimensional person, but this has fallen flat also. Instead, filmmakers have overcomplicated the charming ‘Boy Who Lived’ saga with convoluted subplots about Obscurial Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who’s apparently Dumbledore’s blood-relative, as well as bland magical bureaucracy.
Fortunately, scribes Rowling and longtime Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves do get a few things right by streamlining the narrative and putting some of the focus back on the ‘beasts.’ The film starts off decently enough, with an excellent sequence set in a forest in Kweilin, China, where Newt helps an extremely rare, magical deer-like creature known as a Qilin give birth to twins. Shortly after the birth, a group of Grindelwald’s acolytes, led by Credence, attack and kill the Qilin mother, then try to kidnap a baby due to its precognitive powers. Newt escapes with one of the newborns, unbeknownst to Grindelwald’s cronies, who assume that there is only one Qilin offspring.
From there, the narrative gets messy and jumbled, and The Secrets of Dumbledore becomes overplotted and uneven. Gellert Grindelwald, who is instantly acquitted of all his crimes, plans to rig an election and declare war on the world of the muggles, hoping to become the Supreme Mugwump, the next President of the International Confederation of Wizards — a role for an official that oversees the Ministers of Magic in their respective countries. His elaborate plot centers around the Qilin, who can supposedly see inside a person’s soul and judge if they are pure of heart — and only the pure of heart can govern the Wizarding World. Once Dumbledore catches wind of Grindelwald’s plan, he assembles a team to carry out their own separate missions to thwart the evildoer’s ambitions and confuse Grindelwald and, by extension, most of the audience. Sure, there are overt references to 1930s Nazi Germany as well as allusions to the rigged US elections, but honestly, people are here to see magic and wonder, not muddled politics — didn’t anyone learn anything from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels?!
Helmed by David Yates, who’s made a career out of directing these Wizarding World flicks, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a rather dreary affair. The whole thing is photographed in a grey muted tone, and the cinematography by George Richmond, Rocketman (2019), is bleak and lifeless, making the film uninteresting to look at. Also, for a tentpole fantasy adventure, there’s not a lot of action on offer. There is, however, a top-notch sequence where Newt must rescue his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), from a dark and ghastly cave filled with creepy manticore scorpion-type creatures. And the ‘final battle,’ which takes place on a mountaintop village in Bhutan, is clever and entertaining, albeit short-lived. Plus, as an effects-driven event film, the SFX and CGI are at least good. Aside from these few highlights, there’s not a lot to really excite, bar some fan service. Buffs may get a kick out of returning to Hogwarts, where we see students from different houses interact with the main characters and some Slytherin kids prank poor no-maj Jacob.
Sadly, the central story, which revolves around an imminent election for a new President of the International Confederation of Wizards, falls flat. Apart from Gellert Grindelwald, we know very little about the two other political candidates vying for the position: China’s Liu Tao (Dave Wong) and Brazil’s Vicência Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido). We never learn what their political perspectives or ideals are, which makes the whole thing somewhat apolitical, and thus, boring. Additionally, given its bureaucratic edge, the entire film feels confused. What we have is a whimsical fantasy (that features a silly platypus-like niffler) about politics with next-to-no actual politics in it.
Despite being called The Secrets of Dumbledore, the film doesn’t have many secrets to reveal either. Yes, the movie finally tackles Dumbledore’s sexuality by having him profess his love for Grindelwald in the flick’s opening scene, which is set inside a magical plane disguised as an upscale restaurant. However, after waiting such a long time for this moment, the whole thing comes off as somewhat underwhelming. The ongoing controversy surrounding Rowling and the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t help things either; it makes these portions of the film come off as ‘damage control’ as opposed to something romantic and/ or genuine. Even the pair’s blood pact, where neither Dumbledore nor Grindelwald can hurt the other without jeopardizing their own life, is conveniently broken with little consequence.
The best thing that can be said about the film is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen, Another Round (2020), who replaces Johnny Depp as the dark wizard Grindelwald after the embattled star resigned from the position due to negative publicity. Although Depp a did a solid job as Grindelwald, his casting did come off as a bit gimmicky. Here, Mikkelsen seems better suited to the role and brings depth to the character, sharing chemistry with Jude Law’s Dumbledore and making their connection feel somewhat sincere. Newcomer to the franchise Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James (2017), fails to leave much of an impression as Charms Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks, who joins the already cluttered team; the same goes for Richard Coyle, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), who portrays Dumbledore’s younger brother and the owner of the Hog’s Head inn, Aberforth.
Reprising his role as Newt, the supposed central star of this series, Eddie Redmayne looks tired and disinterested, whilst Alison Sudol does bupkis to make audiences care about the fate of her character, Queenie Goldstein, who was lured into joining Grindelwald’s malevolent army in the former film after the dark wizard promised to someday make her dream of marrying Jacob a reality. Even poor Katherine Waterston, who had a major part in the first couple of Fantastic Beast instalments, is sidelined here and only gets about five minutes of screen-time as half-blood witch/ Newt’s love interest Tina, Queenie’s sister.
As the third in the proposed series of five films, The Secrets of Dumbledore fails to enthuse or amuse, barely justifying its own existence. The film may appeal to Harry Potter enthusiasts and those who follow the Wizarding World religiously. But us mere muggles should perhaps look elsewhere for our blockbuster thrills. I’m certain there are some fantastic stories to tell in the extended Potterverse, but these Fantastic Beast yarns just don’t pass muster. They lack the sense of magic and wonder that made that annual visit to Hogwarts so grand and worthwhile!
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)