Tharidi Walimunige | April 8, 2022
The Fantastic Beasts film series has been wrapped up in controversy and questionability from the get-go, so it’s no wonder that the lead-up to each instalment has invited as much apprehension as anticipation. A notable critique is the retconned and retroactive plot threads which at best are deemed meagre and at worst, problematic stabs at representation. In addition is a messy ensemble of cast and crew members who occupy one of three positions: (1) cancelled but not ousted, (2) disreputable but mainstream media hasn’t cottoned on yet so they’re safe, and (3) fine reputation-wise but blowing out their backs to carry this franchise to the finish line. With all of this rattling around my brain before I’d even gotten to the cinema, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore had given me a lot to think about. Part of me was relieved to secure a seat through a free media pass and therefore technically not financially contribute to this project. I think that says something. Food for thought?
If you’re still showing up in 2022, eager to see where the franchise has taken your beloved characters in this latest instalment when others may have cut ties, there is really only one thing to tell you:
Even if you can get past the controversies, this film will leave you unsatisfied.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and their allies in stopping the schemes of Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) who plans to seize control of the wizarding world. Along the journey, Newt and his team encounter magical beasts, navigate political ploys and battle with Grindelwald’s followers.
For a series titled Fantastic Beasts, there was little presence commanded by magical beasts. Unlike the first film which expanded viewers’ understanding of the Wizarding World and magizoology beyond what was familiar in Harry Potter, this third film doesn’t boast many critters or creepy crawlies. The species that are present feel shoe-horned in. The beasts were either delegated to short comedic scenarios of little narrative value or were inexpertly forced into larger plot points that would’ve done just as well without them. The contrived and at times ridiculous ways in which fantastical creatures shaped the narrative pushed this fantasy beyond imaginative and straight to preposterous. My initial reaction to the beasts was with wonder due to the enchanting visual effects and whimsical conceptualisations. But this soon fizzled out as the film progressed. The few fantastic beasts that barely earned this film its title were more and more awkwardly shuffled around the human-focused narrative.
The one human who is meant to act as bridge between creatures and wizards, and allow the audience a connecting point with the story world, also lacked development as a magizoologist, which didn’t help matters. Viewers have come to know Newt Scamander foremost as a wizard whose job it is to research, find and care for magical creatures. His arc throughout this series always involved creatures in some way. They were his purpose in life; their wellbeing motivated him and their friendship enabled him to achieve heroic feats. Yet this integral connection to his character is rather flimsy in The Secrets of Dumbledore. Newt becomes just another ally and accomplice of Dumbledore. Whether it’s fumbling over human socialisation or proving an open-mindedness to all beings, Newt’s individuality doesn’t sing as it did in previous films. Instead, Newt slots into the group of Dumbledore’s force as if he were any other interchangeable wizard. This is especially disappointing when you recall how previous films set up Newt being an outsider and finding his place with creatures as part of why he was able to be the hero.
Another character who suffered from reduced development is Credence (or Aurelius Dumbledore), played by Ezra Miller. He is severely under-utilised in the film, which is a surprise given the big reveal of his true identity at the end of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. His status as a powerful, sought-after obscurial was also significant to the first two films of the series. But in this third instalment, these factors that define Credence’s presence in the narrative are taken nowhere. The answers you do get about him seem paltry for all the build-up; he feels like more of an afterthought. Credence does develop somewhat as a character, with new information influencing audiences’ understanding of him, however, amid other characters and plot points that were given more attention and effort, Credence’s arc ultimately loses steam.
The film’s issue with momentum extends to the main antagonistic threat. For three films Grindelwald has gathered followers, plotted to overthrow the current order of the Wizarding World and championed blood supremacist ideals in his vision for magical societies. He talks a big game, but if you think back on what he’s actually accomplished throughout the series, it doesn’t amount to much action. The films tell you that Grindelwald believes muggles are inferior, but he hardly ever harms muggles or otherwise demonstrates his disdain for them. He claims to have a grand plan for wizardkind, but viewers are given no concrete details as to what this entails; the audience struggles to feel the stakes. Add to this that all his machinations thus far amount to political manoeuvring and propaganda—most of which are foiled by the good guys in time for the next film instalment—and you get a villain who seems all bark and no bite. If you were hoping for Grindelwald to suddenly become a dastardly, menacing figure in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. He is no more a terrible villain here than in the previous two films.
Now, I will say the film wasn’t all bad. Counterpart to Grindelwald, Albus Dumbledore was the only character that I believe this film served well. As a titular character this time around, Dumbledore became more of a central figure, driving the plot even when he wasn’t physically present for the action. He also came across as somehow working on a different level compared to his allies. Since the film’s main oppositional dynamic between Grindelwald and Dumbledore is built upon the couple’s personal history, to an extent the overarching battle appeared as something intimate; they’d be in their own bubble and the rest of the world would fall away. Despite the large cast, The Secrets of Dumbledore gave me the impression that instead of good vs evil, I was witnessing a conflict of Dumbledore vs Grindelwald. Good thing then, that Jude Law and Mads Mikkelsen delivered compelling performances. Law in particular was benefited by the film acknowledging Dumbledore’s sexuality more so than in the previous films. This allowed him to imbue a tenderness to his portrayal. Mikkelsen wore his version of Grindelwald with an eloquence that demonstrated why wizards might be persuaded to his side. Solid individually, Law and Mikkelsen’s chemistry took it up a notch. The acting ability of two Hollywood heavyweights and their commitment to emotionally resonating performances allowed them to command the scenes they had together.
Another positive note would be that The Secrets of Dumbledore was more expansive in its world-building. Globe-trotting characters introduced viewers to various magical societies, locations, systems of power, rituals and traditions. The political tone is much stronger in this instalment of the series as audiences were acquainted with new details of the story world through social constructs of formal dinners, rallies and elections. It’s an interesting take on a magical world and I was engaged by its subtler machinations of wizardkind. Fanatical posturing and propaganda were the name of the game for this instalment. The Secrets of Dumbledore is about people more than anything else. Alas, I could’ve done with more titillating action sequences where the battle was waged with more than words.
Speaking of what I wished for, my main gripe with the film is that it offered very little beyond a stepping stone to a future film. As time passed and I mulled over what I’d witnessed at the cinema, I came to realise that not much actually happened. Sure, characters go places and enact plans, but at the end of the day I couldn’t be certain that the characters were in a different position to where they’d started. A general lack of progression for both characters and the overarching war hampered the chances of this narrative being memorable. Some questions from the previous films were answered but more popped up in this film; there was always something left unsatisfied. Worse, some answers were contrived and unreasonable, so if you thought about them long enough, even those reveals lacked impact. The beginning and end scenes both suggested a larger narrative that audiences were not yet privy to, and this set the tone for the whole film being shallow filler material until future instalments which will be the real deal.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore hobbles together multiple loose ends and half-baked plot beats and calls it a movie. Things appear to happen simply because the filmmakers need certain characters in certain places. If you consider the plot too closely, you’re bound to end up finding holes in the narrative and weaknesses in the logic of it all. While the acting ensemble and world-building may keep viewers entertained, I have to wonder how many more films it’s going to take for Fantastic Beasts to get to the point.