The third film in the Harry Potter franchise, the prequel franchise Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, is finally here after a few setbacks like the pandemic, controversies surrounding the author J.K. Rowling and domestic abuse allegations between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. Fans began to wonder if it was still coming (this writer included). When the title of the third film was revealed, fans wondered if they would finally get those answers to Dumbledore’s secrets.
Do we get to know those secrets? No, we do not. A more accurate title would be ‘Fantastic Beasts: When Can We Get to the Good Stuff?’ Allegedly the franchise is supposed to be a five-part saga, and if that is the case, then basically, every film before the third is terrified of its own shadow and running in place with no movement in sight. It felt as if Warner Bros. wanted to remake the second film and did a few tweaks to make it look different and then make audiences forget the second film ever happened.
Writers Rowling and Steve Kloves and director David Yates start this next installment by picking up shortly after the events of the second film, and things get off to a rather quickly rocky start. Yes, there is a sequence in which Jude Law’s Dumbledore and Mads Mikkelsen’s Gellert Grindelwald (a casting switcheroo the film never directly addresses, nor did they address Johnny Depp’s replacement of Colin Farrell in the second film) react to each other in a coffee/tea shop scene (where have I seen that before?), but the scene is brutally brief, with bleak pauses replacing what could have been meaningful speech. Dumbledore explicitly admits that he was (is? Not quite sure with that one) in love with the central antagonist. After that tragically short scene, we jump to magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) getting attacked (very original), which ends when one of his animals died a horrible and gory death, followed by the wicked Grindelwald cutting that stolen animal’s neck (not for the faint of heart).
Meanwhile, the gloomy Credence (Ezra Miller) and the troubled Queenie (Alison Sudol) appear solemn. When the film’s fantastic new character (Jessica Williams’ Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks) is dispatched to find the franchise’s favorite returning muggle (Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski), things perk up just a little bit. We all know we will be in for a fun adventure (nothing disappoints when Kowalski is around). The film plays on the concept that Jacob is an open-hearted “no-maj” who, despite his own anguish, can resist “the call.”
This newer version of Grindelwald is a more realistic, less cartoonishly scary manner (like Depp’s version) and is intended to start a world war around the same time as a specific Nazi was elected chancellor of Germany. Fantastic Beasts series presents readers with a considerably more serious and grounded world filled with gloomy themes like bigotry, social conflict, and the emergence of fascism. Even the clothes and color palette of the films indicate a more adult tone. Grindelwald, played by Depp, was a different story. He appears out of place and even a little ludicrous from his appearance to his performance. Depp is renowned for playing crazy, one-of-a-kind characters, but Grindelwald was never intended to be weird, so he feels like a less intriguing version of Voldemort.
Mikkelson’s Grindelwald is a far cry from Depp’s portrayal of the villain, probably for the best. Depp is a superb actor in his own right, but he never fully mastered the power of persuasion required to play the part. Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald is carried through the streets by his followers like some god, and the only actor who can make that work is Mikkelsen. True to Grindelwald’s statement in The Crimes of Grindelwald was powerful, but envisioning Mads answering the call to action would have had better consequences. Mikkelsen leads a calm intensity to the role that Depp lacks, and where Depp provides oddity, the former brings actual dread. Despite his malicious goals and acts, there’s a softness and charisma to this performance behind the nefarious impulses that explains why so many people want to follow him. This closeness and their past are especially strong when Grindelwald and Dumbledore share the screen. Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald was the best version and if Warner Bros. must replace the role yet again for the fourth film, then let’s just say I don’t see it being a success.
The Secrets of Dumbledore walks a tight line between introducing us to the world and characters presented in Harry Potter and telling its own tale about Newt Scamander, his creatures, and their significance in this world. As a result, Dumbledore and Hogwarts play a significantly more significant part than in previous sequels, while Newt’s creatures are far more crucial to the film’s storyline. For example, when we meet Newt, he assists a Qilin, a deer-like magical creature that can identify who has a pure heart and can see the future is giving birth to twins. This new animal becomes crucial to Grindelwald’s plans and the Magical World’s efforts to elect a new ruler.
Lally is a hoot, with Williams effortlessly stealing the show. It helps that she’s allowed to be a vibrant character who is less concerned with the big mythology of it all and more concerned with having fun while attempting to derail Grindelwald’s scheme, but she’s the much-needed breath of fresh air for this franchise. However, one bright scene is insufficient to save a film that drags along with little urgency or purpose, with most people speaking in whispers and exchanging wordless glances. It is as if Warner Bros. was getting billed by the word, and those awkward pauses fit that bill to the T.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
If Secrets of Dumbledore has a purpose, it may be as proof of coping with disillusionment. When the Wizarding World’s production is mired in controversy, and its creator frequently espouses myopic views, it’s challenging to remain enamored. This invariably affects impressions of the work, indicating, at least to this reviewer, how fascinated these films are with binaries – good and evil, poor and rich, love and hatred, light and dark. However, like life, the narrative is considerably more complex, which is a good lesson to learn. It’s not the worst but it could have been a whole lot better if the storyline wasn’t dragged on and the third film could have been the end of Fantastic Beasts franchise.