Review: David Yates' 'Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore'
by Manuel São Bento
April 12, 2022
When it comes to film franchises, it's common to see movie lovers struggle to be honest with their thoughts about the respective sagas, especially if they don't love them like most fans. Fortunately, Harry Potter was and remains special to me as well as to almost all of the viewers who let themselves be carried away by this massively acclaimed magical place. Fantastic Beasts emerged back in 2016 and nostalgia filled our hearts. A wave of emotions soon became overwhelming, resulting in a nearly uncontrollable hype that ended up being brought down by the first two films. However, despite having many issues, the new film Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore exceeds all expectations and becomes the first solid work of the now trilogy.
Considering the numerous production problems that have plagued this project, it's truly a miracle that the end result is so positive. From the replacement of Johnny Depp with Mads Mikkelsen as Grindelwald, to pauses and delays caused by the global pandemic, without forgetting the conflict between franchise creator J.K. Rowling and actress Katherine Waterston, who plays the "absent" Tina in this series, The Secrets of Dumbledore has generated hundreds of controversial topics which not only I won't address, but these also had zero impact on my opinion. In fact, most of the forced changes end up contributing to a much more intriguing story than the predecessors.
It's precisely with the screenplay that The Secrets of Dumbledore surprises the most, mainly in its central narrative, as well as the themes that emerge from it and the highlighted characters. Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (played by Mads Mikkelsen) take the reins of the saga that now focuses entirely on their mysterious, loving relationship. Assuming I'm not the only fan in the world who was unaware of Dumbledore's sexuality, the truth is that considering basic information from 2007 a spoiler for a movie being released 15 years later is a tad absurd. Even more so when the author JKR herself revealed this and even mentioned that the Fantastic Beasts saga was going to study this side of the most powerful wizard in the world.
Secrets of Dumbledore begins exactly with the first explicit dialogue about Dumbledore and Grindelwald's love for each other, and it's from this scene on - a bit too quick for a "new" Grindelwald - that JKR and Steve Kloves develop a genuinely captivating story. Whenever the film focuses on these two characters, whether exploring the complicated, bleak past of the Dumbledore family or otherwise following Grindelwald's strong motivations without ever disassociating their relationship from the center, it succeeds in capturing the eyes and hearts of the audience like neither of the previous installments did. Law and Mikkelsen contribute tremendously to connecting viewers with their characters, delivering performances that deserve attention in their own right. The antagonist has a more powerful, frightening presence than Depp and Colin Farrell - performances I also appreciate - while the former impressively raises his bar compared to the somewhat insipid portrayal in Crimes of Grindelwald. The palpable chemistry between the actors renders extremely tense dialogues and a long-awaited climactic action sequence.
However, it's really Dumbledore's past and family that bring shocking revelations to the Wizarding World. Questions that have haunted fans for years are finally answered through very heartwarming moments shared between Albus, Aberforth (Richard Coyle), Newt (Eddie Redmayne), and even Credence (Ezra Miller). The best narrative component of The Secrets of Dumbledore is the analysis of Albus as a flawed character. All viewers remember the great wizard of the HP franchise, but it was the mistakes and bad decisions of the past that led him to rise to such a spectacular level. The grief and guilt he still carries, the love he still feels, and the family issues he still confronts are addressed brilliantly throughout this movie.
Unfortunately, this rather sudden change in thematic and narrative focus causes several setbacks. The Fantastic Beasts saga initially begins with Redmayne leading the new tale with Where to Find Them, where Dumbledore isn't seen and Grindelwald only "materializes" at the end. Fast forward to Crimes of Grindelwald, and the balance between the different storylines and characters is so out of control that the spotlight is left pointing into the void. Finally, here comes The Secrets of Dumbledore and, after all, it's the love relationship between the eponymous characters of these last two flicks that matters most in a world that started as a magical adventure in America with animals and a magizoologist.
This lack of structure and solid foundations results in The Secrets of Dumbledore correcting multiple plot points defined in the other works and creating new arcs for once-important characters. The first half of this movie mainly serves to save the boat from sinking and place it on a completely different path from the one previously planned, which ends up partially damaging the other movies, as well as the respective characters. Newt goes from the undisputed protagonist with a love interest and a clear mission to a mere pawn in the intricate chess game between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Redmayne is phenomenal, and Newt is indeed a good protagonist… but to lead another saga.
Ezra Miller's Credence was developed as a key element in the last two flicks but gets a somewhat odd treatment during The Secrets of Dumbledore, despite having an incredibly significant arc that ends up being tossed away in disappointing seconds – arguably the most wasted character in the whole saga. Curiously, the only secondary subplot that proves to be consistently engaging throughout the three installments is the relationship between Jacob Kowalski and Queenie Goldstein, hilariously played by Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol. Most viewers will remember the laughs they had at the expense of these two, but the intense drama caused by the constant obstacles in front of them offers a certain gravitas to their proudly giddy love.
That first half also needs time to introduce new & recurring characters and throw them on random missions, most without any narrative impact, affecting the initial pacing, which is too slow for a film not interested in these side adventures. Furthermore, since one of the main premises of The Secrets of Dumbledore is that Dumbledore is, in fact, a wizard full of secrets who never explains everything, viewers are forced to follow characters trying to complete instructions whose ultimate goal and direction are entirely unknown. Jessica Williams acts as the saving grace by portraying Lally Hicks, demonstrating that she was born to play a role in this magical world, giving a charismatic performance.
On one hand, writers JKR and Kloves - especially the latter, as his return resulted in a drastic improvement concerning the quality of writing - create a layered screenplay that's best seen in a repeated session, but regardless of the number of views, everything that doesn't have Dumbledore or Grindelwald is practically insignificant until the third act. Ironically, the positive exception turns out to be something that has always been a fundamental problem in other movies: the fantastic beasts. For the first time in the entire saga, The Secrets of Dumbledore lives up to its primary title, transferring tremendous emotional weight to a particular "monster", finally managing to efficiently merge the animal world with the human plots.
Technically, director David Yates is able to demonstrate greater creative control over this film as he also had in the last HP movies, despite having played it safe on several occasions where more risks could/should have been taken. To top it off - James Newton Howard's score has never been better in this franchise, successfully balancing unforgettable Hogwarts themes and the music of Fantastic Beasts. With the natural evolution of VFX, the wizarding confrontations could easily be a lazy mix of some magical effects, but genuine care surrounds imaginative, entertaining sequences that will undoubtedly leave viewers spellbound.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a significant improvement over its predecessors, proving that Steve Kloves really can work miracles - J.K. Rowling still has a lot to learn. By completely shifting the main focus of the franchise to the love relationship between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, as well as the exploration of the former's imperfections and the tragic, complex past of his family, it gains an emotionally powerful, genuinely fascinating narrative component. Jude Law and Mads Mikkelsen's superb performances broadly contribute to this. Too bad the first half suffers from the constant tweaks to the saga, taking once-important characters through irrelevant side adventures and repairing plot points established in earlier installments, seriously undermining the previous films and negatively affecting the pacing of this one. The boat is no longer sinking, but the damage might be too much to continue sailing…