“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a return to form

For all of the controversy surrounding the latest instalment in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, it is heads and shoulders above The Crimes of Grindelwald and crafts a captivating, tense and imaginative magical tale

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Katherine Waterston, and Mads Mikkelsen

It is no secret that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, released in 2018, was received poorly by critics and fans alike. Overburdened with plodding, boring exposition about the wizarding world at large, it roundly ignored what was appealing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Dogged by controversy necessitating the recasting of villainous wizard Gellert Grindelwald from Johnny Depp to Mads Mikkelsen, a public movement against star Ezra Miller and the continued transphobic utterances made by franchise creator J. K. Rowling, to describe the production of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore as “troubled” may just well be an understatement.

Fortunately, however, it appears that Warner Brothers may just have dredged the floundering Fantastic Beasts franchise out of its murky quagmire. Through bringing on board Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves to write the screenplay with J. K. Rowling (based on a screenplay by J. K. Rowling1), The Secrets of Dumbledore manages to be far more cohesive, propulsive and wondrous than The Crimes of Grindelwald and recaptures the imaginative and tense flair provided by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore once again follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he combats evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s (Mads Mikkelsen) plans for world domination at the behest of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is prevented by a blood pact to face Grindelwald directly. Newt is joined in his quest by faithful No-Maj friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams), a Professor at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Grindelwald’s plan centres around the race to elect the new Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards.

Part of the appeal of creating new stories within the world of Harry Potter is expanding the audience’s view of what lies beyond Hogwarts’ gates. Safe within the confines of the wizarding school, fans of the Potter franchise are treated to a view of how the wizarding world coincides and interacts with the non-magical community. The Secrets of Dumbledore continues to offer glimpses into the wizarding world at large, namely through the German Ministry of Magic, as well as the proceedings that lead towards the election of a new Supreme Mugwump. The sheer amount of imaginative world building is truly awe-inspiring and a draw alone, but does not come at the detriment of good storytelling, unlike the five-minute long circus vanishment that occurred on the streets of Paris in Crimes of Grindelwald. The exposition that is provided to the audience here is not overwhelming, cluttered or cumbersome, but is well-integrated into the plot, able to tell a story with sufficient tension whilst also building upon briefly mentioned ideas in the original Harry Potter books.

The additions to Harry Potter lore here feel more incidental. They happen naturally by virtue of the plot unfolding, as opposed to being the principle focus. The Crimes of Grindelwald, as well as being overly preoccupied with the workings of the French Ministry of Magic, and backstreet circus performances, was also needlessly concerned with a biblically intimate knowledge of the Lestrange family tree – a plot point that ultimately amounted to nothing, despite a dogmatic fixation on it throughout the film. Here, the focus is placed far more upon the mission at hand, and with Newt actively taking part in that mission, instead of an unwilling participant dragged along for the ride, makes for a far more enjoyable, and tense, instalment.

The action sequences, of which there are multiple, are visually imaginative and hugely engrossing. The magical conflicts seen here make Harry and Hermione truly look like school children, once one sees what Dumbledore, Grindelwald, Lally and Credence are capable of. Additionally, with this being a story exclusively written for film (unlike the Harry Potter novels that spawned this spin-off franchise), there is substantially more tension and higher stakes involved, as viewers are less cognisant of who may survive, or where the plot may move at a given moment.

This instalment also excels on the character front. Less so for established cast members like Credence, Queenie and Tina who are barely featured and matter little, or indeed for Newt or Theseus. Newt is consistently unflappable and a little off the wall, while Theseus is the typical straight man role. Dan Fogler, however, is on peak form as everyman character Jacob – an ordinary human thrust into this extraordinary universe and used to reliably comic effect. He is also the character whose personal jeopardy the audience feels the most, and the script uses this to great effect.

Lally, played by Jessica Williams and seen in a cameo appearance in the previous film, is a wonderful addition to the franchise, and one can only hope that the glimmerings of chemistry between her and Theseus suggest that she is here to stay. A furiously intelligent and talented witch, Lally joins the pantheon of Potterverse females who are exceptional purely because they are better than the men who surround them, yet, for some baffling reason, do not take charge themselves.

Then there’s Dumbledore. Played at a younger age by Jude Law, there seems to be a more human fallibility to Dumbledore as portrayed here. No longer venerated as an unreachable headmaster, in his youth his flaws are far more laid bare. It is more obvious here the games that Dumbledore plays – the way that he shirks his duty and responsibility and prefers to stay hidden in the shadows, using other people to carry out his dirty work. It is vaguely alarming to see that Dumbledore’s using of Harry was by no means his first offence, though the official in-universe explicit confirmation of Dumbledore’s sexuality has been a long time coming, and he is lent a new scarred pain through the tale of his lost younger sister.

All of this, however, does not entirely excuse the identity crisis that the franchise as a whole seems to be suffering with. Initially starting as a fun, awe-inspiring film focussed upon an array of magical creatures within the Harry Potter universe, the Fantastic Beasts franchise has become less and less about Newt Scamander, and more about the quest to bring evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald to justice. It is becoming increasingly apparent through the promotion of this film, placing iconography of phoenixes, Jude Law himself and Hogwarts centrally, that Warner Brothers wish to capitalise more upon its connections to Harry Potter in order for it to be successful.

This isn’t entirely surprising. After all, Fantastic Beasts would not exist if not for the Harry Potter franchise in the first place, and Newt as a protagonist is difficult to sell. Newt, by nature – and this is by no fault of Eddie Redmayne – is not a leader. He does not wish to be one. He is bumbling and he is awkward and he does not command the audience’s, nor the story’s attention. What gives this plot forward momentum is the presence of Dumbledore, and Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, who is almost entirely absent from this instalment, also commanded the story far more than Newt does.

Ultimately, the directionlessness of the franchise can be characterised by the film leaving no clues by the end as to where the next instalment will take it. With another two films left to bring Grindelwald to justice, it is difficult to predict just what will transpire in the 13 years to cover between this instalment and Grindelwald’s ultimate defeat.

It is also worth noting that this film does not pass the Bechdel test. Of course, the Bechdel test was never invented as a means to measure how feminist a work is. It is, however, a bare minimum expectation for two named female characters to have a conversation that is not about a man. It is considerable, therefore, that in a film with limitless imagination and the ability to craft an entire world, there is still not enough power to create a world with equal gender representation. Instead, only one among the core team is female and the audience are once again robbed of an interaction between two main characters Queenie and Tina, despite the pair being sisters and main characters. It may behoove Ms Rowling to spend a little less time inciting hate against marginalised groups and instead put her money where her mouth is when it comes to feminist views, if it’s all that important to her.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore was released in cinemas on 8 April 2022

1One can, of course, read into this in any way that they wish to. But when I see a credit “Screenplay by J. K. Rowling and Steve Kloves, based on a screenplay by J. K. Rowling” what I see is “J. K., you wrote a bad screenplay. Let’s get Steve in to mop it up”. Apologies if that’s anti-feminist, Joanne, but for a self-proclaimed, incredibly vocal feminist, you are also incapable of writing a feminist screenplay so, well, there’s that.

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