In the days and weeks leading up to Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the movie’s screenwriter and Wizarding World creator J.K. Rowling has spent far more time doubling down on her abhorrent anti-trans views than she has promoting her own film. Then again, if I’d written something as overpacked and unfocused as this film I’d be trying to bury it too. It has its moments, but The Secrets of Dumbledore nevertheless shows that lessons have yet to be learned from past mistakes, an ironic circumstance given the film’s discussions on past regrets.
Set during the 1930s, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is now a committed member in the fight against the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp). He and fellow characters take orders from Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who still heads the campaign against Grindelwald despite not being able to move against him, as per the magical bloodpact the two made in their youth. Their conflict takes them to various corners of the world, but is due to come to the fore at the International Confederation of Wizards. Think the magic equivalent of the United Nations. Here, Grindelwald has announced his candidacy to lead the Confederation, where, if elected, he’ll be free to impose his dangerous views on all witches and wizards. It’s now up to Scamander, Dumbledore, and a magical creature sacred to the wizarding world to stop him.
As for the titular secrets of Dumbledore, it’s a singular secret, and it’s more of an inconvenient footnote than an important revelation. The film is so concerned with appearing vast and spectacular that it ends up performing an awkward juggling act with its assortment of characters and plot points, spinning them at such a dizzying rate that none of them are given sufficient attention. It’s a two and a half hour film and yet it still feels as though gigantic chunks are missing from it.
Case and point is the character work. There are some engaging characters – Dan Fogler’s muggle, Jacob Kowalski, is still the most interesting and affable character of these films, and the few scenes of Dumbledore being pensive about his past are fairly solid. However, most of them are sidelined to make room for everyone else, who are in turn sidelined themselves. Scamander now feels like a cog in a machine in place of the agency that the first film, and even the second film to an extent, gave him. The obscurial wizard Creedence (Ezra Miller), who directly ties into the aforementioned secrets, has barely any screen time and an even less sense of urgency. Alison Sudol’s Queenie remains compelling, but her story feels scattershot at best and paradoxical at worst. Yet it’s more than can be said for her sister Tina, who is all but completely erased from the film despite being a co-lead in previous entries, something made all the more baffling with the inclusion of new characters who effectively just fill in Tina’s absent role. One can’t help but think that this has something to do with Tina’s actress, Katherine Waterston, being especially vocal in her condemnation of Rowling’s anti-trans bigotry.
So cluttered is its ensemble that character arcs feel rushed at best and non-existent at worst. This was the same problem that The Crimes of Grindelwald suffered from, and examining this film as a narrative bodes similar results. What we have is essentially a journey to stop Grindelwald rigging an election. A simple enough idea, but that idea is crammed with detours that involve seeing magical animals, diving into dialogue heavy backstories, and travelling to multiple regions of the globe. The film appears far more invested in its quantity of wizardry antics over the quality of its convictions.
One of the film’s key themes is the equally empowering and debilitating nature of love. It’s an interesting concept, but its execution is muddied by the inconsistent character work discussed above, and eye-rolling cases of virtue signalling. Since 2007, shortly after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows released, Rowling has consistently said that Albus Dumbledore is gay. Yet, when push came to shove in the last film, she couldn’t put action to her words, instead creating a convoluted magical bloodpact between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. While Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald, and thus his sexuality, is finally acknowledged here, it’s still the bare minimum of effort. It feels particularly disingenuous when you also factor in Rowling’s recent behaviour towards other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Although there is the rule of separating the art and the artist, that doesn’t stop the art being a reflection of the artist.
What we have is an ideal example of a film that tries to have it both ways. By rushing to do a bit of everything it ultimately ends up doing nothing. Yet, unlike the best of the wizarding world films, it doesn’t even have the distinction of being visually appealing. The direction feels half-hearted, the editing seems choppy, and the colour palette consists mostly of dull greys and unpleasant beiges. Even the few instances of bright colour feel as though they’ve been filtered to look darker. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice to match the tone, but comparing the visual scheme to the fun and zaniness of the original Fantastic Beasts is like night and day.
As far as positives go, James Newton Howard’s score is genuinely dazzling. The special effects and designs of the fantastic beasts, especially the creature central to this film, are as inventive as ever. And the performances of the cast are generally pretty strong. Standouts include Law as Dumbledore, Fogler as Kowalski, and Mads Mikkelsen, who manages to take the ridiculousness of whatever Depp’s performance was meant to be and actually craft something somewhat menacing out of Grindelwald. Sadly though, the end result is something that just feels hollow despite its corpulent narrative. At the root of this is, like The Crimes of Grindelwald before it, a poor script that not only contradicts its own canon and themes half the time, but doesn’t seem to fully know what it’s trying to accomplish.
The Secrets of Dumbledore is a rare film that somehow manages to be both overstuffed and undercooked simultaneously. It’s almost admirable how vacuous it is as a piece of storytelling. Yet, instead of reiterating my dislike of it, I’d like to offer suggestions of what you should watch instead of this film this weekend. There’s Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy, Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Sebastian Leilo’s A Fantastic Woman. You could also seek out the work of directors like Silas Howard, Sydney Freeland, Yance Ford, and Isabel Sandoval. Heck, if you’re in the mood for blockbusters, rewatch The Matrix films again. Whatever you choose will almost certainly give you a more rewarding experience.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is in cinemas April 8th
Director: David Yates
Writers: J.K. Rowling & Steve Kloves
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Katherine Waterston & Mads Mikkelsen
Country: UK & USA
Runtime: 142 minutes