Harry Potter is one of the most beloved franchises in modern pop culture. From the books to the films, many grew up on the story of the Boy Who Lived and have fond memories of their time immersed in the world, so much so that there was a 20th anniversary special in 2022. The same can’t be said for the Fantastic Beasts series. A prequel to the Harry Potter story set in the early 20th century, the series has been plagued by low box-office hauls, the anti-trans rhetoric of author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling and the legal drama surrounding Johnny Depp and Ezra Miller. So with all that in mind, how was The Secrets of Dumbledore? Let’s find out.
The Secrets of Dumbledore once again stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, the magizoologist who finds himself in the middle of the turbulent times of the age. The dark wizard Grindelwald, now played by Mads Mikkelsen (replacing Depp), has amassed a large following and seeks control of the Wizarding World in order to wage a war on the muggles and prevent World War II from happening. Newt is once again tasked by Jude Law’s Dumbledore to help put a stop to Grindelwald, along with a ragtag crew, including Newt’s brother, Theseus, Illvermorny’s charms professor, Lilly Hicks, and the always welcome Jacob Kowalski, who always seems like he’s having a fun time on these movies and his enthusiasm and reactions are delightful.
A Big Step Forward
I’ll get it out of the way: The Secrets of Dumbledore is by far the best film in the franchise to date. I think a large part of that is thanks to Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves returning to the franchise. Kloves has written seven of the eight Potter films (he missed out on Order of the Phoenix) and The Secrets of Dumbledore feels much tighter and focused than the previous two entries in the franchise and even captures some of the magic found in the Potter films that was sorely absent in this franchise prior. Rowling is still writing the story, but she’s passed her treatment off to Kloves, who ironed out the kinks. One of the bigger criticisms of the last two films was that Rowling just wasn’t a great screenwriter and Kloves ensures that the script this time around is better. The year is 1932 this time around and the Wizarding world is in the middle of an election, one that is dictated by a magical creature as opposed to casting a ballot. Grindelwald seeks to manipulate the election to suit his own agenda, something Dumbledore and company can’t allow to happen. So they team up in an effort to thwart his plan. That’s the nutshell version of the movie.
A big win for the movie is Mads Mikkelsen as Gellert Grindelwald. He plays his version of the dark wizard with a cool and calming demeanour. He’s well dressed and even charming, but he has a quiet energy that screams “do not test me” that makes him both confident and menacing. Mikkelsen is easily the highlight of the film and is the best the character has been to date. Grindelwald has amassed a large following of supporters and the way they and the press deify him definitely harkens to political leaders like Hitler, Putin and even Trump by the way they’re able to win a large audience to their cause with casual ease. Words are the biggest weapon here and I like that this entry has gone deep into what politics are like in the Wizarding World and how it mirrors past history and current events quite hauntingly. At first, my knee jerk reaction was “Grindelwald couldn’t get that many followers” and then I went “oh, wait”.
A Tale of Two Movies
However, this franchise is left with an identity crisis. What started off as a fun film about magical creatures has turned into a political series set in the Wizarding World. But the series also wants to keep Newt as the lead, when it should be putting Dumbledore in that position. Jude Law’s Albus has far more to do than Newt in the movie and he’s the more interesting of the two characters. His story with his brother, Abberforth and his past relationship with Grindelwald, far outweigh anything with Newt and the film would be much more focused and leaner if Newt’s role was that of a supporting character. Those who grew up with the Potter books and films are now adults and a more mature, political storyline is certainly something that can be appreciated if done right, as it offers a lens into our own world. But it never fully commits to it being a story that’s geared more towards grownups and it pulls back and forth between this more unique and interesting aspect and the safer route with Newt. As such, Newt is kind of just there in this movie and doesn’t have a character arc. His biggest contribution to the film is his knowledge of the macguffin of the film, the Qilin (pronounced “chillin”), a magical baby deer that’s critical to the plot. That said, the more you think about it, the less it makes sense. The Qillin feels like it’s there to keep Newt in the movie, rather than actually serving the plot. If you removed the Qilin and kept the same story beats, not much would change except you’d have a movie solely about Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Newt, like his trusty trunk, is nothing more than baggage in this movie.
The Secrets of Dumbledore tends to drag, which is another issue it faces. The film is almost two and a half hours and it feels like it. There’s also a lot of characters to keep track of and many get sidelined, including Creedence, who feels very important to the plot while also feeling insignificant at the same time. Katerine Waterson’s Tina Goldstein also feels like an afterthought in the movie but considering how they handled her relationship with Newt in the last one, the film actually does feel more focused without bumbling sideplots like the marriage misunderstanding. One has to wonder why Nagini was brought up in the last film if she wasn’t to be included in this one, unlike Yusef, who does return.
Director David Yates is once again behind the camera as well and has been ever since Order of the Phoenix. But I find there’s nothing remarkable about his directing style and should the franchise go forward, I would hope that they’d look for a new director to bring a fresh perspective to the series.
In the end, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a big step forward for the franchise. It’s interesting, not needlessly confusing like The Crimes of Grindelwald was and boasts solid work from Law and Mikkelsen. It would be a shame if the franchise is canned, but with diminishing returns and a shaky fan base, one would understand if it was. That said, if they do pull the plug of the film series, I hope we can see Law’s Dumbledore and Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald continue their journey up until their duel in 1945 in an HBO Max series. Watching Grindelwald’s rise to power leading up to the Second World War is one of the more interesting aspects of this series and seeing how the Wizarding World responded to the war, the very thing Grindelwald predicted, is something that could really pay off. If we’re lucky to get at least one more film, the franchise should commit to the political angle and shed the deadweight. Despite its flaws, I’ll definitely say that this is the best of the franchise. Is it amazing? No, but it was a good time at the movies, which is a win for this series.
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