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.   

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (Revisit 2022)

When it was announced that the final Harry Potter book would be split into two parts for two final films, there was a lot of complaining. Cynics around the world saw it as a cash grab, merely a way to extend the series to an additional film and pull in some extra bucks. Harry Potter fans who read the books on the other hand understood immediately the need for this decision. While “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is not the longest book in the series (that honor goes to Order of the Phoenix) it is the one with the greatest number of incidents to visualize as part of the over arching narrative. When seeing the results of the final two films, it is hard to imagine how it could have been condensed to a single three hour film and still be comprehended. 

The majority of the film does focus on the battle of Hogwarts, but there are so many adjoining paths that need to be resolved, and yet it still feels like it is doing the minimum possible with some threads of the story. For instance, the information about Aberforth and Ariana is skimmed over quickly, just enough to keep the characters in the story, but with very little background (which may be the justification for the Fantastic Beasts Series of films). On the other hand, it was essential to get Lily and Severus in the story as students at Hogwarts and the time spent in doing so is one of the best moments in the whole series. So Screenwriter Steven Kloves and Director David Yates made some very sound decisions in choosing what to include and how much time to devote to those elements.

There are fans of heist movies that should really appreciate the way in which the jobs get taken care of in these last two films. The Poly Juice Potion does seem to get overdone a bit in the movies, but it is an effective technique and it is used in clever ways here. Helena Bonham Carter gets to be in the movie a bit more than would have otherwise been justified by her part, simply because Hermione is passing herself off as that vile character when the three leads are trying to infiltrate Gringotts. Carter is really terrific playing a character who is so uncomfortable playing the character that Carter actually is. Her shoulders slump like Hermione’s might if she was uncertain,. She hesitates with eye contact the way someone might when testing out an acting role. Rupert Grint  does not have to transform himself  except by disguising himself with a beard, but he gets the surly facial expression of Bellatrix Lestrange’s vassal, just right.  I liked that Harry and Griphook are using one of the Deathly Hallows in pursuing a Horcrux, although I am a little unclear if the curse Harry uses in one of the Unforgivable curses or if it is some other variation.

The Model used for the films at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Experience in the U.K.

The special effects in the vault sequence are pretty darn good, although I do miss the amount of practical work that made the mine chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom so much fun. The albino dragon who is nearly blind is a perfect match for my imagination when I first read the book, and the Goblin supervisor who is is entranced, shaking his empty hand as if he has one of the warning bells in it, is a very nice touch, both humorous and disturbing as it plays out. There is plenty of action and excitement in the sequence, but it does not hold back the story, it really does feel like the launching point.

         

Inevitably, the audience is going to have to fill in the blanks in a few places. When our three protagonists return to Hogsmeade after the raid on the bank, they are greeted with alarms that we don’t quite know are set off by. Seeing how it is a magical place, we can sort of assume that Harry’s mere presence would be enough to get them going. The explanation in the book is more interesting and clearer, but it would require more exposition and the film requirements mean we should be focusing on story rather than minutia. The same sort of choices are made with Aberforth, and with just a couple of slight references in the dungeon of Hogwarts, we move on past what was a whole chapter in the book. Fans of both the books and the films can appreciate the arrival of the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix. We remember that you can’t apparat directly into the castle, so when they appear at the door of the great hall at the moment Harry is confronting Snape, we can fill in the blanks perfectly well.

The key emotional turning point in the film is not the confrontation with Voldemort at the climax, it is the sequence that comes before that, when Harry discovers that the man he has resented since his arrival at the school, the man he thought betrayed his beloved headmaster Dumbledore, is in fact a more important connection to his mother and the resolution of the conflict, than any other character in the film. Snape is revealed as the true hero of the story, having endured horrors on an equal level with Harry, but never able to show that to anyone and having to sacrifice himself so that harry can finally understand. It is Harry’s five minutes in the Pensive that clarifies everything and forces Harry to become a man, and not just the boy who lived. When taken together with the intrusion of Snape’s memories in “Order of the Phoenix, we have a very complete picture of Snapes motives and actions. That he has had to stand by while others suffered so that he can allow the trap to be sprung is a pretty good example of the kind of control a wizard would need to justify being called a Headmaster of Hogwarts. That Harry has to eat the words he only moments before threw at Snape, make this a story arc worthy of eight films. 

All of the major characters get a few moments to shine in the battle that ensues. The novel makes some of the losses more poignant with details, like the loss of Lupin and Tonks, but the visions we are given do them adequate justice. It is the moments of action that we really get our money’s worth out of here. McGonagal going off on Snape and then setting the guardians of Hogwarts loose makes us revere her even more. Mrs. Wesley battling Bellatrix and surprising her with a completely unexpected spell is a moment of ecstatic release. The best addition however has to be the elevation of Neville Longbottom to the status he always deserved but was denied him as a secondary character. He could easily have been the one who was in Harry’s place, and we discover that if that had happened, he would have been a worthy “chosen one” as well. 

The stars of the movie evolved into solid actors over the ten years that they made these pictures. At first, they were cute kids who played the parts well, since they were mostly cast as cute kids. As the series got more serious, so did their chops. Ron as a character matters more in the last three films, he is not just a sidekick. Grint does a good job being a stalwart follower who becomes a leader along the way. Emma Watson grew into her beauty in these films and that she sells us on Hermione’s relationship with Ron, is a testament to her skills as an actor. Daniel Radcliffe had the whole enterprise resting on his shoulders since he was eleven. He often got to have a few humorous moments in the films, but in Deathly Hallows Part 2, those moments are far fewer. Instead we get some great line delivery, like the slam at Snape, or the grasping of Voldemort and flinging himself off the parapet while calling him Tom. The most moving moment of the film is in the Coda, when grown Harry tells his young son that he is named after two headmasters of Hogwarts, and he can proudly say one of them was a Slytherin and the bravest man he ever knew. Radcliffe had his big boy pants on in that scene and he nailed it.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly hallows Part 2” is not just the conclusion of the last book, but also of the series that made a difference in real kids lives. There are still some who only know these characters from the movies, but to millions of children, reading became the wand that could open their imaginations. All of the Young Adult fantasy that dominates the film markets these days on Netflix, Hulu, Prime and similar platforms, all owe a debt of gratitude to J.K. Rowling and her imagination and skill with language. The film makers were smart enough to figure out that they needed to keep the movies as close to those kids imaginations as they could, and they succeeded.