Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

If you have been following recently, you will not be surprised to see that I am a fan of the Harry Potter films. In the past month I have seen three of them on the big screen, and I was happy to get the opportunity to write about them since I had not yet started blogging when they first arrived. The Wizarding World is an umbrella label that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling have coined to cover an expanded universe of materials, including this second series of films that are basically a prequel to the original stories. The first in the series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“, was a welcome addition to the fantasy world and id a great job at setting up a new set of characters. The follow up film, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is another case altogether. While it had the requisite visuals, it lacked the spark of the first film, misused some of the characters that had been created, and was basically a series of exposition dumps that were hard to keep track of and boring to begin with. “The Secrets of Dumbledore” needs to pull the series back from the brink of self destruction, and it largely does that.

This movie is not as narratively strong as the first film was, but it is a lot better at keeping us involved and it uses the characters pretty well. Ever since the back story of Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the last of the Potter Books, it has been believed that there was a love story gone wrong there. This film confirms that in the stories, and as a side note has created problems for the studio as a result. Apparently the Chinese market is not ready to accept a gay subplot in a western made film, so references to that aspect are being trimmed for that market. There is a little bit of hypocrisy here because of the attitudes of Hollywood to stateside policies. but as an economic decision it is inevitable. The film needs as big a market as possible to justify what they have invested in and to be able to pursue more films. 

There are two or three course corrections her in this story that help put the series back on proper footing. The most important of which is that there is plot not just narrative. We know the objective of our antagonist (although the background on why Grindelwald is motivated in this direction is very murky. Power! seems to be all that is there). Jude Law as Albus Dumledore is much more a part of what is happening in the film.  Newt Scamander is more engaging in this story than in the last one, where his character was the dullest thing in a dull movie. He is used expeditiously as one of the main characters, rather than as the lead character. That helps keep the story from becoming tiresome. Eddie Redmayne continues to mumble and remain understated, but at least his characters brother is around to translate on a regular basis, and he has a couple of charming scenes that do play off of his character, rather than just inserting his character into a scene where the personality does not match up. If he were on his own in a scene confronting the International Wizards Confederation, it would be a disaster, but fortunately, his brother Theseus, is more articulate, and a new witch “Lally” is around to fill in gaps. This new character is a welcome addition to the film and fills in where the moping drudge of Leta Lestrange would have dragged the film down more. Katherine Waterston must not be available for shooting most of the time, this would have been a part that she could have played, but she only shows up in a couple of inserts and right at coda. 

The biggest miscarriages of the second film were the misuse of  Queenie and Jacob. The way Queenie gets drawn into Grindelwald’s circle is not convincing, and Jacob was barely noticeable last time out. Queenie is still a little out of place but at least we can see why she was needed in the camp of the dark wizard. Her character is conflicted in this story and that is exactly the way they needed to go. Having stumbled with her, J.K. Rowling and returning co screenwriter Steve Kloves, find a way to at least use their mistake and get out of it by the end. Jacob Kowalski, the Muggle/No Maj, played by Dan Fogler, is the most entertaining character in the films and his charm has been completely restored in this story. He and Redmayne play off of one another really well, and he gets to be included in the plot in a way that makes sense, not just as a tag a long character. The scene where he interacts with the students at Hogwarts is delightful. 

The series is titled “Fantastic Beasts” so it is perfectly acceptable to have the fantasy creatures play a part in the story. Their presence was overdone in “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, but there is just enough in this film to make them relevant without becoming obnoxious. There is a mythical creature with the power to see the future and the decency of a person, the Qilin is charmingly visualized but be ready for a horrifying moment early on in the film, it was disturbing. Newt gets a chance to return to his quirky persona in a prison break scene set in a black site which is a German Wizard’s prison, along the lines of Azkaban, but even more gruesome. In spite of the grim setting, there is a very humorous element that reminds us that we are watching something that should be fun, and this scene reaches for that goal and achieves it.

There are still problems with the narrative. Most of these would have been solved if Rowling had written full books for each of the films, and then adapted the stories so they could be coherent. Because there is not a literary history to fill in details, certain things just have to be taken as a given, and that does not always work. Holes in the plotline are rushed. Grindelwald goes from loathed fugitive to favorite for political office, almost instantaneously. The current head of the International Wizard Confederation is a character with inconsistent actions, and looks substantially like Mads Mickelson who is playing Grindelwald, and that suggests some collusion as well. The Credence plot line is resolved with the least annoying retcon possible, but the whole family connection was a mistake in the first place. 

I don’t know that this film can keep the franchise going. The theatrical revenues will be affected by changes since Covid, as well as the missteps of the prior film. There are still plot lines that could be followed up on, but if it ends with this entry, the conclusion is satisfactory. I’d still enjoy seeing more of the characters, and I would be interested in the timeline and the way it gets integrated into actual history, but that might be a landmine that Rowling should take a lot more time to figure out. The film is largely successful and I would keep following the plot, I’m just not sure it will do enough to expand the audience back to Potter sized proportions.   

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