Four years on from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, much has changed in our world and indeed J.K. Rowling’s world as well as the Wizarding World. These include Rowling’s controversial views on how transpeople and trans rights conflicts with and infringes on cis women’s rights which instigated calls to boycott her and the future films, Johnny Depp’s unceremonious “sacking” from the franchise which also instigated calls to boycott it, and many fans and critics being left confused and disappointed after the The Crimes of Grindelwald.
The aforementioned second instalment featured the rise of Grindelwald, the plot twist of Queenie switching sides, Credence “finding out who he is” before joining Grindelwald, and Dumbledore revealing why he can’t move against him. Plus, several other subplots and supporting characters’ backstories which were intriguing yet hard to follow and added little substance to the franchise as a whole.
So with four years to reflect upon their efforts so far and produce The Secrets of Dumbledore, Rowling and her trusty team of David Yates and Steve Kloves needed to get it right this time. But did they?
Indeed, parts of The Secrets of Dumbledore improved on its predecessor. Dare I say that as much as Johnny Depp’s talents are undeniable, Danish actor Mads Mikkelson slips into the role of Gellert Grindelwald with sinister ease. His portrayal as a charismatic yet enigmatic, calculating and supercilious leader versus Depp’s cruel madman Grindelwald humanises him as a political tyrant akin to many we have seen and continue to see in today’s world.
A major highlight of the film was both Jude Law and Mads’ chemistry as former lovers turned enemies (even though Grindelwald insists he isn’t their enemy). The inner conflict and physical conflict with each other as they both play their game of magical chess (not Wizard’s Chess) to try and out-manoeuvre the other’s next move, shows unresolved feelings of love, respect, resentment and anger between them. Sadly, news of the two’s dialogue being cut from the cinematic release in China and other territories which strips their relationship down to just ex-friends, is a blow to the representation of a marginalised community and the first openly same-sex reference made by Rowling in her works. That dialogue however, at least redeems itself after the essential glossing over of the true extent of their relationship in the The Crimes of Grindelwald.
And Jude Law as Dumbledore – despite the hilarious and accurate meme circulating pointing out the jump in obvious age and looks between him and Michael Gambon’s version in less than two decades – has perhaps surpassed himself with this iconic role. Embodying the nuances of Gambon’s accent, tone, mannerisms and even his expressions, Law confidently becomes a co-lead in The Secrets of Dumbledore as his character’s troubled past is retold and unfolded.
In addition, award-winning actor Eddie Redmayne continues to delight audiences as Newt Scamander. His adorably humble and bright, yet shy and sure demeanour (one that many have guessed he is written as being on the autism spectrum, though this has never been officially confirmed) makes him extremely likeable and makes Harry Potter look like a cocky, short-tempered and inexperienced teenage boy. Actually, he was. Who’d have thought a passing mentioned historical character in one of Hogwarts’ books would be stretched out to a fully fledged hero in one of the most important moments in magical history?
However, the film as a whole, was filler. It answered some questions that were left hanging at the end of the previous film but posed more questions throughout that were ultimately anti-climactic. Credence’s – or Aurelius’ – true identity is uncovered (hence the “secrets” of Dumbledore not just being about Albus) and his mission to kill (Albus) Dumbledore is over before it even gets a chance to begin. Tina Goldstein is notably absent from much of the film, which in promotion for it, had more people guessing where she was more than anything else. Fear not though, for she is in it. But it’s hardly an exciting revelation from what people might be expecting.
There is also some allegiance switching and the introduction of new characters that had never been seen and surely never mentioned before, as well as the promotion of Bunty, Newt’s assistant, to a slightly bigger supporting role. This appeared to be – alongside the addition of Lally Hicks who had a cameo in The Crimes of Grindelwald – a way to substitute Tina’s absence. And alongside Tina, there is no mention or sight of Nagini, who was left bewildered and vulnerable after Credence followed Grindelwald in the previous film.
Then there’s the question of why so many very minor characters were needed throughout the film when they are shown to be rather insignificant to its development and story. The cameras pan across them in several scenes and their dialogue seems to serve no real purpose. Some aren’t even given any dialogue. For example, J.K. Rowling once again overlooks Asian cast members and characters, having them be nothing but wordless faces in the backdrop of her ever growing need to diversify. Diversity is improving in her Wizarding World, yet where is the inclusion? British Chinese actor Dave Wong plays Liu Tao, one of the two original candidates to become Supreme Mugwump (is that a Pokémon?) of the International Confederation of Wizards (ICW). But while his opponent Vincência Santos gets a great deal more airtime and even a couple of lines, he is silent. Or is it silenced?
But if we are talking about plot, The Secrets of Dumbledore’s main narrative is somewhat motionless and largely forgetful. Perhaps this is what happens when you decide to extend an originally planned trilogy across five films.
Though Grindelwald is bizarrely pardoned of all previous wrongdoing and subsequently granted permission to run in the election to become Supreme Mugwump in his bid to impose his psychopathic vision over his fellow witches and wizards before taking control of and destroying the Muggle population, not much else really happens. Dumbledore and his army (not quite the original DA), attempt to foil his plan, with the plan and foil both centred on the capture of and special ability of a Qilin (actually a Chinese mythological creature, not one of Rowling’s “original” fantastic beast creations). However, what they do essentially just adds extra time to a film that only resolves the most pressing dilemma up until now – how can Dumbledore break the blood pact?
By the way, it was not clear the Qilin was indeed a Qilin since they mispronounced it to sound like they said “chillen”.
In regards to the “fantastic beasts” aspect, Rowling continues to introduce more over-exaggerated creatures we have heard of or she’s made up since last time that either heavily resemble other fictional beasts or look like animated versions of real animals. Some, like Newt’s Bowtruckle and Niffler (just two of the creatures original HP fans will have heard of) continue to prove their worth, while others such as the Snallygaster (the baffling shape-shifting goose-like bird/dragon/dinosaur) seemed to purely be there for the “wow” effect. Although it was more like “wow, what on earth is that meant to be or do?”
And in more attempts to outdo themselves, the use of magic and the visual effects rendered for the film are as stylistic and over-the-top as ever. After eight Harry Potter films, they think fans want to be surprised and amazed even further. But do they? The magical battle scenes are a far cry from the less Matrix-esque ones from HP, and other uses of magic – especially Dumbledore’s eccentric and showy wand-waving – are often in close-up slow motion, are shrouded in cloud and the hues are distorted in ways that seem to try and convey something spectacular or focus you on minute details. However, they only leave you wondering “what was that all about?”
So if you’re a Harry Potter fan, there are of course things that you will love, including the reimagining of some much-loved characters or the mention of them, the nostalgic trip back to Hogwarts, and a detailed history lesson of what you probably already knew the basics of. If you have been a fan of the Fantastic Beasts series so far you are more likely to appreciate the new, glossy style of these films, the ever-expanding Wizarding World in all its strange and at times convoluted glory, and be hoping for that dramatic – and even partly romantic and partly hateful – showdown we know is coming between Dumbledore and Grindelwald that rivals Dumbledore vs. Voldemort in The Order of the Phoenix.
But, bar a couple of important parts in the The Secrets of Dumbledore, you could quite easily skip this film and head straight into the fourth instalment. But then you’ll have been waiting at least six years because god knows when that will be out.
And if you’re someone who is torn between still admiring J.K’s work and despising her personal views, it is up to you whether you continue to support her and appreciate the Wizarding World she has created or turn your back on it all. Of course, for me, it has been hard to separate her from everything, but there is no denying what she has done here is conjure up a magical space you can get lost in completely. But you can still champion transpeople and their rights through other means. You can push her out of the picture, continue to enjoy the Wizarding World and show your support for the embattled trans community in ways that will truly make more of a difference than simply boycotting her and her legacy.