Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

I seem to be in the minority opinion in that I’ve enjoyed all three Fantastic Beasts films so far, and I hope that this planned five-film series (a spin-off from J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter stories) is able to reach its intended conclusion (something that seems extremely unlikely based on the poor box office returns of this latest installment).

And yet, while I enjoyed The Secrets of Dumbledore, I feel the film has almost exactly the same flaws as beset its predecessor, The Crimes of Grindlewald, and I find myself scratching my head at some of the creative decisions that were made for this film, and for this series as a whole.  I’m going to dig into Dumbledore in detail, so please beware of SPOILERS from this point on.

The Secrets of Dumbledore, like The Crimes of Grindlewald before it, seems torn between two very different movies.  Is this truly a Fantastic Beasts series, one centered on the shy but brilliant magical zoologist Newt Scamander, chronicling the silly and exciting adventures that he and his band of friends get up to, as they seek to protect all of the wizarding world’s strange and weird magical creatures?  Or is this a movie (and a series) centered on Dumbledore, one that explores his past and his tragic conflict with his one-time love Grindelwald, a personal drama that would expand into an epic, globe-spanning story of good versus evil?

The movie (and the series) cannot seem to decide, and so what we get is a bizarre smushing together of these very two different types of movies, and I feel that The Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t succeed in telling either story well.

If this is supposed to be a story about Newt & his friends, then why doesn’t Newt have any sort of character arc in this movie?  Why has Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) been almost completely excised from the film?  If this really was a story that cared about Newt, we’d get to actually see him tell Tina how he feels (when she finally shows up for a tiny cameo appearance at the very end of the movie); we’d actually get to see the wedding of Jacob and Queenie (who are theoretically also lead characters in this series), and we’d get to actually see shy, awkward Newt deliver his wedding speech.  But the movie doesn’t bother to show us any of that.  Instead, the movie ends, not on Newt, but on Dumbledore.

But, on the other hand, for a movie called The Secrets of Dumbledore, what secrets do we actually learn?  Readers of the Harry Potter books already knew what happened to Albus Dumbledore’s sister Ariana, and we already knew about the Dumbledore-Grindlewald schism.  What new do we learn?  In a very short scene of exposition, we learn how Credence (Ezra Miller) — revealed as a Dumbledore in the cliffhanger ending of The Crimes of Grindlewald — is connected to the Dumbledore family, and we finally get actual spoken confirmation that Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindlewald were in a romantic relationship.  But beyond that, we don’t walk away from this movie knowing much more about Dumbledore than we did before.  He’s still pretty much the same all-knowing, all-good character he was before.  Nor does the film really take the time to dig deeper into any of the Dumbledore family relationships — between Albus and his brother Aberforth, or between those two brothers and Credence.  (There’s an awesome Dumbledore-Credence fight in the middle of the movie, but at the end of the fight Dumbledore weirdly just leaves Credence.  Why?  What does Dumbledore really feel towards this boy?  Why won’t the movie explore that?  Why don’t we have more scenes between the Dumbledore brothers, exploring their complicated relationship?  Why don’t we actually get the full story of Credence?  Why don’t we learn who his mother was, when and why he was separated from his family, when Aberforth learned of his existence, why Aberforth didn’t ever bring him into his family, etc. etc??)  Nor does the movie take the time to truly mine the emotional depths of the Dumbledore-Grindlewald story.  We get one great scene between the two men at the start of the film (in a recreation of a restaurant), but little beyond that.  I wanted the movie to make me feel the heartbreak of this romance turned sour, but the movie never moves beyond the superficial.

Which, at its core, is the biggest flaw of this film, and of these series.  There are just too many characters, and none of them have been fleshed out enough to make me care about them.  I do still really like the main Fantastic Beasts foursome: Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie.  But my connection to them carries over from previous films; there’s too little here in this movie to earn that.

Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski is treated the best by this film.  He gets the most to do.  The idea of Muggle Jacob (thank heaven they’ve stopped using the awkward “No-Maj” phrase they used in the first Fantastic Beasts film) getting a wand is a delicious idea, and Mr. Fogler is a master of physical comedy.  He also gets to carry the lion’s share of the actual emotional drama in the film, as we witness his heartbreak at Queenie’s turn to the dark side and his desperate efforts to turn her back to the light.  But why didn’t the story of Jacob’s having a wand actually go anywhere?  What purpose did that serve in Dumbledore’s plot?  I’d expected to get to see Jacob either really mess things up or to be an unexpected hero, but neither really happens.  (We get that brief bit where he causes a storm at the fancy dinner, but nothing more.)

I continue to be very taken by Alison Sudol’s work as Queenie Goldstein.  Her turn to the dark side was a great surprise at the end of the last film.  But I can’t believe that the movie chooses to have her turn back to good take place off-camera.  How do we never really get to see her make that choice??  What a failure of drama!  (Also, the film completely fails to address what struck me as a huge plot-hole in the previous film.  Queenie can read minds!!  So how could she possibly ever be fooled by Grindelwald?!  He hates Muggles and wants to destroy them, so it’s inconceivable to me that Queenie, who is in love with a Muggle, could ever be seduced to be on his side.)

The near-complete absence of Katherine Waterston’s Tina really rubs me the wrong way.  What is the story here?  (Was Ms. Waterston written out of the series after her criticism of J.K. Rowling?)  It’s like if Hermione was missing from the third Harry Potter film.

Eddie Redmayne remains very endearing as the shy, gentle Newt.  I loved the sequence with him and his brother Theseus escaping from the dark wizard’s prison and navigating all those crab-like creatures.  That was fun, and the best actual Fantastic Beasts sequence in the film.

I was pleased to see Callum Turner back as Theseus, though he doesn’t have much character development.  The second film introduced us to a very tense, awkward relationship between the two brothers, but that seems to have been dropped.  Nor do we see much follow-up to the death of Theseus’ fiancee Leta Lestrange in the last film.  It’s nice to see Newt and Theseus working as a team; I like the idea that Newt’s gentle kindness is able to bring all these other people along to his “team”, but I wish the film allowed us to better explore the dynamic between these brothers.  William Nadylam also returns from The Crimes of Grindelwald as Yusuf Kama.  But here too, while Mr. Nadylam is a powerful on-screen presence, Yusuf doesn’t have much to do.  He’s involved in one heartbreaking scene in which Grindelwald appears to rob him of his memories of his beloved sister.  But the movie never explains what happened after that.  How did Yusuf maintain his identity?  Was he able to protect his memories after all??

Jessica Williams (The Daily Show) is terrific as Lally Hicks.  She popped up very briefly at the end of the previous film; it’s nice to see her elevated into a more important role here.  Ms. Williams is simply fantastic; energetic and charismatic and funny.  The downside, of course, is that it seems to me that everything we see Lally do in the film should have been done by Tina.  Right?  Was this role originally written for Tina??

Victoria Yeates returns as Newt’s assistant Bunty, and she has a larger role to play than before… but it’s still not that large.  Ms. Yeates is lovely in the role.  But I wish the film developed Bunty’s character further.  What are her feelings towards Newt?  Are they romantic?  Was the film trying to develop a Newt-Bunty-Tina love triangle?  I wish we’d gotten into this more deeply.

Jude Law was genius casting as a younger version of Albus Dumbledore in the previous film, and it’s a delight to see him back in the role.  I love Mr. Law in the role.  He conveys Dumbledore’s knowledge, his wisdom, and also his quiet nobility and innate goodness.  I just wish the film had more centered Albus in the story, and allowed us to actually dig deeper into his character.

Mad Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) is terrific as Gellert Grindelwald.  He is vastly superior to Johnny Depp, who I have all along felt was miscast in the role.  How much stronger would this series have been had Mr. Mikkelsen played this role from the start?  He’s much more grounded and human that the weird-looking makeup/prosthetics used for Mr. Depp’s version of the character.  Mr. Mikkelson is so smooth and silky and charismatic, while also being so creepy and unsettling.  He’s perfect in the role.  His scenes with Jude Law’s Dumbledore really sparkled.  But, as has been the theme of this review, I wish the story had explored his character, and his complex relationship with Dumbledore, more deeply.  They had the two perfect actors who could have really made a meal out of this storyline.  It feels like a big missed opportunity for me.

The film looks absolutely gorgeous.  It’s astonishing how far the production values of these Wizarding World movies have come since the first Harry Potter film two decades ago.  Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is packed full of gorgeous and 100% convincing special effects.  There are some terrific magical duels; we get to meet several new magical creatures; there are all sorts of spells and little bits of magic throughout the film; and it’s all totally convincing and immersive.  And the epic scale of the spectacle is as grand as ever.  The film takes place across a variety of locations, culminating in a magical gathering place in Bhutan, and it’s all absolutely gorgeous and memorable.  The sets, the costumes, the props; everything is beautifully realized.  Director David Yates has been helming Potter films for quite a while now (even since Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and he brings incredible skill and confidence to the helm of this big-budget fantasy adventure.  It’s wonderful to see.  And the Harry Potter/Wizarding World production team has so many years of experience that what they’re able to create on-screen is astounding in its breadth.

I love this world and I really like all of these characters.  I just wish that the many different wonderful elements of the film came together in a more satisfying way, and didn’t leave me with so many lingering questions.  (Here’s another one: whatever happened to Nagini??  Why wasn’t she included in this story, after her intriguingly tragic introduction in The Crimes of Grindelwald?)

The first Fantastic Beasts movie was very much about Newt & co., with just some hints of a larger Gindlewald story lurking behind the scenes.  I wonder: was it the plan all along to dive so deeply into the Dumbledore-Grindlewald stuff, or was that done in an attempt to try to bring more Harry Potter fans back to this spin-off series?  Whatever the reason, I think this split approach is not successful.

Are my expectations too high for these films?  There is part of me that thought, you know, if we’re going to get a new Wizarding World adventure every few years for the forceable future, and so I should look at these movies more like chapters in a story as opposed to a complete story in itself, then The Secrets of Dumbledore is a fun, entertaining chapter.  And indeed it is!!  I’ve spent a while in this review pointing out the film’s flaws, but I want to be clear that the two-ish hours I spent in a movie theater watching the film were very enjoyable!

I wonder what is next for this series.  I was surprised by the way in which everything seemed to wrap up quickly at the end.  (Grindelwald is defeated, Queenie comes back to the good side, Queen & Jacob get married, Newt & Tina reunite.)  Were the producers hedging their bets in case they didn’t get to make the planned fourth and fifth films?  If so, they were probably smart to do so.  All the happy endings squeezed into the film’s last five-ish minutes left me with a weird, rushed feeling, but if this is the last we see of these characters then I’m glad we got a sort-of resolution to everything.

There’s a lot of fan speculation that Warner Brothers might try to make a film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a way to rejuvenate their film series.  I have a slightly different recommendation.  I’d love to see them drive a dump-truck full of money to the homes of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, to convince them to reprise their roles.  But instead, have them be there for some sort of framing device, telling the story (perhaps to their kids?) of the epic confrontation between lovers-turned-enemies Dumbledore and Grindelwald.  Let this film be the end for Newt & co., and instead dive into the story that I’d bet is the one fans really want — an exciting, epic adventure with Dumbledore as the main lead, one that really explores his character and his relationships with his closest family (like his brother Aberforth) and enemies (like Grindelwald).  Bring the top-notch production values that this team is capable of to a story like that, and I’d bet fans would return…

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