“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” finally come after four years, and it is more of a grind than an event. The long-awaited third edition of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World sub-franchise is less congested with distracting detail than its immediate predecessor, but even a more polished storyline cannot prevent the film’s two-hour running time from seeming like an endurance test.
The stress is exacerbated by the behind-the-scenes intrigue surrounding the film’s April 15 theatrical premiere. Johnny Depp, who starred as the franchise’s villain Gellert Grindelwald in the sequel, was accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Ezra Miller, who portrays Credence Barebone, has been embroiled in their own controversy after reportedly choking a fan outside a club and, more recently, harassing patrons at a nightclub in Hawaii and allegedly entering into the hotel room of a random couple. Then there’s Rowling, the series’s creator, who has spent the last two years adamantly reiterating her anti-trans stance.
It’s difficult not to think about these contemporary topics while seeing The Secrets of Dumbledore, as the film’s primary story themes are drawn from contemporary political fights. While the film’s moral themes remain centred on the war between good and evil, Rowling, who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Kloves, utilises a forthcoming Wizarding World election to amp up the stakes. To be good, as Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) implies at one point in the film, is to fight for the preservation of democracy, to “do what is right, not what is easy.” To be wicked is to act in the opposite direction.
The Secrets of Dumbledore begins with a chilling confrontation between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (now portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), the moral conflict’s avatars. They meet in a cold, almost palatial café surrounded by seemingly ignorant non-magic patrons. Over tea, the two feuding and sad wizards reminisce about their pasts and lament their betrayals. Dumbledore finds himself in a difficult situation as a result of Grindelwald’s determination to dominate the wizarding world and spark a conflict with non-magical people. The future headmaster of Hogwarts must defeat his rival and former lover, but a decades-old deal forbids the two from fighting directly.
This is when Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the series’ hesitant magizoologist, enters the picture. Dumbledore recruits Newt to assist him in assembling a squad capable of defeating Grindelwald. The ragtag crew is composed exclusively of characters from earlier instalments: Newt’s helper Bunty (Victoria Yeates), his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), his buddy and Muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), Leta’s brother Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and Charms professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams).
They design a complex plot with several moving components with the purpose of confusing Grindelwald, who possesses the ability to see into the immediate future. Dumbledore feels that if the party can outwit the astute wizard, they will have a chance of rescuing the world. Confusion is necessary for the suspicious squad, led by a hesitant Newt, to trust one another. A comparable level of confidence is expected of viewers, who must believe that this third chapter will inspire faith in an uncertain series following two lengthy instalments.
Secrets of Dumbledore, in comparison to the other two films, feels more like a Harry Potter film than a Fantastic Beasts picture. While a few magical creatures exist — one is particularly important to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s ambitions — they are far from the core focus. This part focuses on Dumbledore, who is a more intriguing character than the series’ ostensible hero, Newt Scamander. This transition helps focus the film’s plot, but does little for those of us attempting to decipher the series’ goal.
Secrets of Dumbledore, on the other hand, is not without its charms. David Yates (who directed the first four Harry Potter films and the entirety of Fantastic Beasts) returns with a formidable crew that includes director of photography George Richmond, production designers Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont, editor Mark Day, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and composer James Newton Howard to recreate the rich, textured Wizarding World. Slowed-down and filmed from a variety of perspectives, the fight scenes enhance suspense and showcase the franchise’s technical expertise and prowess. The magical animals are meticulously crafted, and the universe contained within Newt’s suitcase remains awe-inspiring.
As Newt and his friends tour around the Wizarding World — from New York and Berlin to Bhutan — they learn to appreciate Grindelwald’s impact and the appeal of his vision. (His promise that wizards will be allowed to live and love freely under his reign swayed Jacob’s love, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, in the previous film.)
As Grindelwald plans a campaign for president of the International Confederation of Wizards, he transforms into a fascist figure, whose discriminatory attitudes and harsh speech appeal to and inspire a disillusioned populace. However, it’s difficult to believe Rowling and Kloves’ screenplay, which just scratches the surface of this metaphor. A spectator sensitive to the narrative’s likeness to actual life may struggle to see the irony of a writer like Rowling espousing messages of compassion, love, and radical acceptance in light of her recent public statements.
If Secrets of Dumbledore has a purpose, it may be to demonstrate how to cope with disillusionment. It’s tough to remain infatuated with the Wizarding World when its creation is fraught with controversy and its founder regularly espouses dangerously narrow beliefs. This unavoidably has an effect on how the work is seen, indicating, at least to this reviewer, how fixated these films are on binary oppositions – good and evil, poor and rich, love and hatred, light and dark. However, reality, like narrative, is considerably more difficult, and the brand would be well to embrace this lesson.