Despite boasting a large cast of interesting characters, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is lacking in storytelling magic – here’s our review.
Spoilers for The Crimes of Grindelwald lie ahead.
I have a huge weakness for Hogwarts. When the orchestral majesty of that incredible John Williams music kicks in and the camera swoops around the iconic silhouette of the castle, it’s Pavlovian for me. The tears come.
J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels were some of the first books I loved as a child. The release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into cinemas in 2001 marked one of seven-year-old me’s first moviegoing experiences, while the final film a decade later showed up on the cusp of my adulthood. What I’m saying is that I am on the hook for the Wizarding World in a big way. With that in mind, it gives me no pleasure to report that Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore is a pretty disappointing slog.
It has been four years since previous movie The Crimes of Grindelwald and its cliffhanger revelation that the volatile, troubled Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) was really Aurelius Dumbledore – secret brother of Albus (Jude Law). COVID-19 delays and multiple behind-the-scenes controversies left the film in limbo for a long time, but it has now arrived, bearing all of the hallmarks of a troubled, muddled production as it looks to answer the big questions.
Anti-Muggle megalomaniac Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp) is amassing power with the help of Credence and has acquired a Bambi-like magical creature with incredible powers. He can also see glimpses of the future. With this in mind, Dumbledore and his merry band – including nominal franchise lead Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – must concoct multiple, overlapping plans to befuddle their adversary, with nobody quite sure of every pertinent detail.
This creates the first issue with the film, in that a huge portion of what happens is a red herring by design. There are supposedly major characters who are deployed simply to go to a place and wait for instructions, only to emerge as irrelevant to the plot. Rowling’s screenplay – this time co-written with Potter veteran Steve Kloves – is full of narrative dead air, with the lengthy runtime passing without much in the way of notable incident.
Even the re-introduction of Hogwarts is fleeting and serves little purpose other than to evoke that meme of Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen in recognition. The last Beasts film had so much to say that it left characters reading leaden slabs of exposition. This one has so little to say that it hopes its impressive spectacle, courtesy of returning director David Yates, can fill the gaps.
It’s also a movie that suffers by virtue of being a true ensemble piece. Newt was the protagonist of the first film, arguably ceding that role to Credence in the sequel. But The Secrets of Dumbledore lacks that kind of focus and can’t keep its multiple plates spinning elegantly enough.
Law’s portrayal of Dumbledore continues to be a bright spot and the scenes he shares with Grindelwald definitely have an energy to them, with the franchise finally acknowledging the romantic history between the two men. This is helped by the arrival of Mikkelsen, who proves to be a clear upgrade on Depp’s tic-heavy work. Mikkelsen’s portrayal is more mercurial and subtly malevolent – a man who keeps his cartoonish evil to the shadows in order to win power legitimately, which has enough real-world resonance to make an impact.
As for the rest of the cast, the ensemble has become so crowded that their impact is scant. Katherine Waterston’s Tina is literally described in an early scene as “very busy” and appears only fleetingly, while the relationship between Muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) and mind-reading witch Queenie (Alison Sudol) is given too little spotlight to make the most of its potentially significant emotional heft – the two actors shine when given moments together. Queenie has dyed her hair a slightly more evil shade of blonde since her third-act heel turn last time around, but that’s about it. The less said about how little notable screen time Redmayne gets, the better. He has gone from being a leading magical scientist to following Dumbledore around like a puppy.
There is a bright spot in the ensemble, though, in the addition of Jessica Williams as Lally Hicks – a professor at American magical school Ilvermorny. She’s a straight-talking and wryly funny woman whose wand combat is second to none, helping to deliver some of the film’s most enjoyable action sequences. This was conceived as a five-part franchise, so hopefully there’s more of her – and indeed of Ilvermorny – in future sequels.
But there’s difficulty looming on the horizon with the onset of the Second World War. Secrets of Dumbledore takes place in the 1930s and, in a move of questionable taste, suggests that the man in charge of Germany’s magical community coincidentally happened to be a wrong-un at the same time as real-life Germany elected one of history’s most awful, evil men.
With two movies left to go and the famous Dumbledore-Grindelwald duel scheduled for 1945, this franchise is setting itself out on a thorny, difficult path that requires a sensitivity and nimbleness it hasn’t yet shown. Indeed, it’s better and on surer footing when the main thrust of the action is Newt doing a crab impression to carry out a prison escape, with the help of his Bowtruckle and Niffler buddies of course.
It would be wrong to say that The Secrets of Dumbledore strikes a terminal blow for the Fantastic Beasts franchise. There are moments of real fun to be had, especially involving Newt and his creatures, while the groundwork around Law and Mikkelsen’s growing tension is interesting enough to make the prospect of a fourth movie sufficiently compelling. But this is a movie afflicted by every conceivable curse of being a thankless middle instalment, unfolding through a lot of noise and CGI sparkle but without anything in the way of real storytelling magic.
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