I’m a Harry Potter fan. From the books and audiobooks (I’ve listened to both the Jim Dale and Stephen Fry recordings) to the eight movie franchise to the enormous Potterverse of ancillary products, it’s hard not to have had The Boy Who Lived influence the last few decades (the very first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997). As part of that series, characters at Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry reference a textbook called “Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them”, so author J. K. Rowling published it as a compendium of magical creatures. It listed the author as Newt Scamander, so naturally, when Warner Bros. and Rowling decided to create a second film franchise based on the book, Newt, as embodied by Eddie Redmayne, was the protagonist.
The first film in the second Potterverse film franchise, Fantastic Beast and Where To Find Them [my review] was released in 2016 and was entertaining, nostalgic in that it brought us back to the world of Hogwarts, Muggles, and The Ministry of Magic, but also a bit confusing. The Fantastic Beasts storyline takes place about 65 years before Harry Potter heads to Hogwarts. There’s some character overlap, but the wizened old instructors from Harry’s days at Hogwarts are young witches and wizards in the Fantastic Best movies.
The first Fantastic Beasts film introduced the antagonist Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who undoubtedly will eventually be revealed to have some connection with the later antagonist, Lord Voldemort. Both are dark wizards who seek to lead the wizarding community in rising up against the non-magical muggles. Meanwhile, Newt (Redmayne) is much less of a hero than Harry proved to be, preferring to socialize with his menagerie of strange creatures than with actual human beings, magical or muggle. The mysterious boy that proves to be the center of the film – indeed, of all three movies – is troubled emo teen Credence (Ezra Miller). He’s an orphan, just as Harry was, but did his parents really die? Who actually is Credence?
The second film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [my review], came out in 2018 and somewhat focuses on Grindelwald, but really follows Newt and his pals Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle who is aware of the magical world, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is smitten with Jacob and is a Legilimens who can read minds, and Tina (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s equally shy love interest and a junior Auror in the United Wizarding Congress (the American version of the Ministry of Magic). A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), later to become the head of Hogwarts, enlists Newt to help fight Grindelwald, who has escaped to wreak havoc on the non-magical world.
Now, finally, we can talk about Fantastic Beast: The Secrets of Dumbledore. While it’s definitely better than the messy and confusing Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s hard to understand the narrative point of Secrets of Dumbledore. I won’t spoil the film, but suffice to say storyline resolution is not key to this 142-minute film.
Coming into the film, you already know [spoilers for the first two films] that Queenie is under Grindelwald’s spell and shunning Kowalski, and Tina and Newt have gone their separate ways. Indeed, Newt has returned to England and the Ministry of Magic where his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) works. Dumbledore is teaching at Hogwarts and Grindelwald has long since vanished into the hinterlands.
The Secrets of Dumbledore have already been revealed in previous films too, the most important of which is that Dumbeldore cannot directly fight Grindelwald and therefore has to send others to try and stop the mad wizard from overthrowing the muggle world. This film’s storyline is tightly intertwined with the previous and it will prove beneficial to rewatch at least the last half-hour of Crimes of Grindelwald prior to seeing Secrets of Dumbledore.
While the vast majority of the cast reprise their roles from the previous films, a significant change is Johnny Depp being replaced by Mads Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, this proves a terrible choice; Mikkelsen brings zero gravitas or threat to the critical role of Grindelwald. Instead of being a terrifying presence in the story, Mikkelsen plays him as more of a milquetoast, dramatically contrasting with the crazy, off-kilter, alarming Depp characterization. The scenes where the forces of good line up to battle the forces of evil really just don’t work with his surprisingly mild portrayal. It’s hard to understand why he wasn’t portrayed as more of a frightening dark wizard, but it definitely impacts the overall tone of the film.
As if it were written by a Facebook group full of fans, there are some really fun and entertaining scenes in The Secrets of Dumbledore but they don’t really fit together to create a great story that propels the viewer from the opening scene to closing credits. The four main characters are still engaging (Newt, Queenie, Tina, and Jacob), with particular props for Dan Fogler, whose Jacob Kowalski is one of the most likable characters in the entire Potterverse. Still, it’s hard to understand why Newt remains so unsure of himself after experiencing so much success and recognition by his peer community. Dumbledore is perhaps the most interesting of characters, but he appears way too infrequently in the film, instead sending off Newt and others to combat Grindelwald while he, umm, is busy teaching at Hogwarts? We do learn more about this surprising situation as the film proceeds, but it’s not particularly satisfying for a film where Dumbledore’s name is in the title.
Production-wise, the Potterverse films all look beautiful, have great visual effects, interesting locations (yes, we travel back to Hogwarts), terrific music, and lots of fun costumes and ancillary characters. They’re enjoyable, but with this being the 11th film in the universe, it’s fair to start asking which are actually great movies and which are just fillers to move the story forward. And that’s the problem. While I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore it feels more of a fun, but non-essential episode of a TV series than a critical cog in the Fantastic Beasts 5-film story arc.