It was over 6 years ago when director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling banded together to create Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) – a film adaptation of the 128 page book by Rowling; a small pocket guide to magical creatures. It wasn’t long before this spinoff film became a commercial success and even gained the approval of most critics. Yates and Rowling did an admirable job of turning a small piece of material into something substantial and largely enjoyable. Did it capture the emotions and energy of the original Harry Potter films? Certainly not, but it did manage to salvage at least some of the magic and mystery that made the wizarding world so engrossing.
However this brief success was short lived, as it was then announced the Fantastic Beasts films would be turned into, not one, not two, or three, or four, but FIVE feature films that would combine elements of the Fantastic Beasts guide book and the events of the Dumbledore-Grindelwald confrontation. At the time, I was apprehensive, yet open to seeing if this could be executed successfully. Then came the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), a revoltingly messy followup that shattered any skosh of confidence one could have in these films. It was right then, at the failure of the sequel, where Rowling and Yates should have abandoned this fruitless narrative. Alas, here we are, at the third film in the series.
The Secrets of Dumbledore continues the exploits of the Magizoologist Newt Scamander, as he and Dumbledore hatch a plan to foil the dark wizard Grindelwald from seizing power across the wizarding world. Now, I can say with some level of confidence that Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is by most metrics an improvement upon The Crimes of Grindelwald. You see, The Secrets of Dumbledore has the benefit of being structurally coherent and not leaving you feeling confused and astonished like the previous entry did. It even retains a few of the charms of the first film and focuses largely on telling a single storyline without untoward distractions. This film’s greatest benefit was when it decided to shed weight in the writers room, dispensing with several complicated sub-plots and messy character perspectives. Now we’re just left with a few of them.
However, there are at least a few upsides to this film. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as always, provides his own unique charm and shares several of this film’s best moments; which generally entail him interacting with fantastic beasts; who woulda thought? We are also met with a commanding yet charming performance by Jude Law as Dumbledore; sure, he may not feel like the Dumbledore we all know and love, but Law provides a presence to the character that strikes a nice balance between humble and controlled – he also feels undeniably powerful. These moments however are brief and it isn’t long before you catch on that this film is as uncertain about its story as the previous one was. In fact, I’d say the titles of these two films are perhaps the best indicator that they have underlying issues with identity; “The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “The Secrets of Dumbledore” – What crimes? What secrets? We’ll never really know for sure.
But if there’s one thing that’s out in the open in The Secrets of Dumbledore, it’s that this film is not afraid to do endless callbacks to the Harry Potter franchise – in fact, it’s as unafraid as it’s ever been. To such a point where it begins to lose whatever remaining identity it had in favor of some nostalgia-bait and fan-service. Make no mistake, the occasional callback is greatly appreciated in any sequel; but there’s such a thing as too much of one thing. The Crimes of Grindelwald may be the inferior film, but at least it did not rely too greatly on the magic of the older franchise to inspire interest.
On a visual level there’s not much to go on about; it’s the same, if not worse than the previous two entries. The excessive use of green-screen and scaling back of fantastical sequences makes for a less impactful experience. Yes, these films are getting less visually grand as they go on and not because I’ve acclimatised to the style, but because it feels like these feels as a whole are losing more passion, imagination, and spark as they progress. Though, this can’t be said for the score and sound design, which was all around stellar; providing its own distinct style and impact; at least, whenever Harry Potter themes weren’t being obnoxiously blasted.
What little momentum this film series had died with the previous film; The Secrets of Dumbledore is not just running on fumes, it’s running entirely on its past successes and the brand awareness of its IP. No franchise, no matter how popular, can survive indefinitely on just the successes of its past films. Rowling and Yates clearly want to build something of their own together here, with their own level of authority on the script and production. But as many successful film franchises have proven, monopolizing creative control of a franchise down to two people results in stagnation, not revelation. And let me tell you, there’s nothing remotely revelatory here.