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“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” Course Corrects the Franchise, But Is It Too Late? (Review)

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I start with an admission: I hated Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, this film’s predecessor. It was the first genuinely bad film, a morass slog of dopey callbacks, dithering political machinations, and ghastly screenwriting, among the nine other stories that make up the Wizarding World series of Harry Potter films and offshoots. That said, I’ve cared a great deal about The Boy Who Lived in my life. I read the books to my newborn son at bedtime. I took my younger sister to midnight book launches. I have seen, and largely enjoyed, each film in the series many times. I even worked in a bookstore the summer Half-Blood Prince was released and knew Dumbledore’s fate before most.

I think that context matters to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find I really quite liked The Secrets of Dumbledore. The film kicks off with a series of exposition larded re-introductions to each character from the past Fantastic Beasts films. As someone with little interest in revisiting the series, I suspect they may have been a helpful refresher but in the moment they felt like the worst sort of screenwriting. And yet in hindsight I suspect screenwriter Steve Kloves (writer of seven of the mainline Harry Potter films) was actually up to something clever. Not only was he reacquainting the viewer with the characters, he was also subtly shifting our perceptions of them in ways that will later pay off in the film. One small example sees Theseus, lead Newt Scamander’s brother, repositioned from a somewhat antagonistic position to his brother into something more supportive. Grindelwald moves from Johnny Depp’s genuinely horrible make-up driven performance – it’s impossible to believe Dumbledore, or any person for that matter, could have loved that man – to the more human grace of Mads Mikkelsen. What was once a poor man’s Voldemort is re-envisioned as a Magneto to Dumbledore’s Charles Xavier: two men with very different visions for how humans and wizards should interact, but also a grudging respect tainted by something more insidious and thoughtful than outright villainy.

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All of a sudden, perhaps 45 minutes into the film, it felt like things started to click into place. There’s a glint and a humor to everything even if the plot machinations are all a bit nonsensical. The cast seems particularly game this time as well, perhaps because they’ve been given a better screenplay from which to work. This is Eddie Redmayne’s best work as Newt Scamander – it is perhaps the fact that he’s sidetracked a bit into his own monster menagerie movie that allows the character to play off his “Chad” elder brother. I love Katherine Waterston as a performer, but the two never evinced a convincing chemistry so the shift to primarily playing off a very funny Callum Turner helps Redmayne’s performance. Jude Law remains a superb choice for a young Dumbledore. He feels wise and wizened beyond his years with just enough puckish playfulness to seem in concert with the Dumbledore of the books and the Michael Gambon performance (legend that he is, Richard Harris was always a bit too severe in the part).

Mainstream blockbuster movies keep slowly getting closer to treating gay characters equally to straight characters, but we’re still not there. Mikkelsen does impressive work to sell a passion between himself and Law but a few longing glances and reference to an all-encompassing love is not the same thing as actually committing to it. Marvel’s Eternals at least had the guts to show an on-screen gay kiss, Chinese and Russian releases be damned. It’s hardly full representation, but it’s better than other blockbusters have treated gay characters. The Secrets of Dumbledore remains committed to keeping Dumbledore’s sexuality, well, a secret. That a few choice snips could sufficiently hide his sexuality to the contentment of Chinese censors says all you need to know. That said, if this series has a future (and overseas box office is certainly concerning) I would be interested in seeing more of Law and Mikkelsen together.

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The film’s last act – a shell game chase through the streets of Bhutan – is some real crackerjack filmmaking from long time Wizarding World director David Yates. It manages to evoke Raiders of the Lost Ark while maintaining the magical spirit of the source material. The found family team built through the movie is effectively paid off in the character beats of the last act. It’s the rare modern blockbusters that ends on a high note.

The craft and technical work here is absolutely superb. The film looks and sounds great. The great James Newton Howard has continued to find a musical identity in these films that plays off of the wondrous Harry Potter scores. The set and visual designs are excellent, as is the period costume work. There are a number of genuinely gorgeous shots in here from cinematographer George Richmond in his first Wizarding World assignment.

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I’ve saved the elephant for the end, but it’s impossible to talk about this film without acknowledging the broader context in the proverbial room of the movie’s release.  The Secrets of Dumbledore is something of a cursed production.  Leaving aside COVID complexities, the film’s production timeline has seen source material writer J.K. Rowling devolve into a transphobic Twitter troll. Co-star Ezra Miller has seen all manner of allegations arise about strange and criminal behavior in his personal life. As if by some evil wizardry, this film opens the very week fired former star Johnny Depp’s libel trial begins over allegations by ex-wife Amber Heard that he abused her on numerous occasions (allegations which have already been deemed “substantially true” by a U.K. Court which noted that “the great majority of the alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard.”) And, most recently, studio Warner Bros. made the cowardly, albeit fiscally wise, choice to remove the film’s most overt references to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s homosexuality to ensure the film’s release in China.

If all that makes you say “I’m done with this series” I get it. But for those who would question why our site would choose to cover the film, let alone write a relatively warm review, I’d note that literally hundreds of people worked on this movie. The overwhelming majority of them are simply doing their best to get a job done. I don’t think the conduct of some of the biggest names related to the project should entirely erase the work so many people put into it. If you disagree? I respect it.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is in theaters in the United States this Friday.