Title: Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) Director: David Yates Writers: J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol
Right, we’re back with another Fantastic Beasts movie, this time darker, longer and more confusing to casual fans of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Will this middle chapter of the planned five-film Fantastic Beast series survive major recasting and J.K. Rowling controversy? Let’s find out!
The first film in the Harry Potter spinoff series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was released in 2016 and inspired by J.K. Rowling’s book of the same name. The titular book is a bestiary listing the various magical creatures inhabiting Rowling’s universe, written by the eccentric wizard and magizoologist Newt Scamander and read by students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was followed up in 2018 by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which saw the rise of the evil, Muggle-hating wizard Gellert Grindlewald.
Of course, this being a story about J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards and witches, there are intricate plots, factionalism and complicated family trees. Set in the 1920s, we’re treated to a convoluted and somewhat disjointed story about the evil Grindlewald’s power grab in the wizarding world, and how the good guys, led by the great wizard Albus Dumbledore, himself a former boyfriend of Grindlewald’s, try to stop him.
This time, the hunt is on for a magical deer, called a Quilin, that can sense a pure soul, and is thereby used to choose the next leader of the magical society. And somehow, this reminded me of a quote from the comedy masterpiece, Monty Python & the Holy Grail:
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” -Denis the Peasant
Fun Fact: The Qilin or Kirin is a legendary creature from Chinese, Korean and Japanese myths. It is chimerical, combining aspects of both horse and dragon, and was seen as the purest of all creatures. The earliest mention of a Quilin is from the 5th century BCE.
In Western mythology, the Qilin is often confused with unicorns. It appears in media and games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where it is called a Ki-rin (Challenge Rating 12).
When compared to the original Harry Potter series, the Fantastic Beasts films have from the start been an exercise in mediocrity. Even with a director of David Yates’ caliber, the films still feel very much like a tired spinoff meant mostly for the fans of the original series who wanted more after eight Harry Potter films. True, the cast is great, and of particular note is Eddie Redmayne as New Scamander, Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore and Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski and in many ways the audience’s point of view in the magical world.
But the big surprise was Mads Mikkelsen, having taken over the role of Grindlewald from Johnny Depp, a recast I thought would be jarring. To be clear, the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is a terrific actor, and he perfectly portrays the big baddie of the Fantastic Beasts-films in a more serious, less cartoonish way than Depp did in the two previous films. A clear improvement.
But good actors can only do so much and other actors were less great. I think this has something to do with the fact that many of their characters are just there, without much impact on the plot. Ezra Miller plays the tormented Credence Dumbledore, and to be honest, I really didn’t get his function in this film – except for writing magical messages in a mirror about how miserable he was. And Alison Sudol is back as the cartoonish, mind-reading Queenie, whose storyline is limited to choosing between her love for Jacob and her loyalty to Grindlewald. You’re either charmed, or you’re not. I wasn’t.
The Secrets of Dumbledore also tries to tackle certain political issues, clumsily reflecting real 1920s history in the magical world. It’s not very subtle, as much of the story is set in Berlin, which in real history was rife with political violence between fascist and communist factions. Looking past the fact that it is hard taking J.K. Rowling seriously on any social matter these days, what could have been an interesting take on real history through a magical lens is lost under the constant waves of magical, CGI action set pieces accompanied by the blaring tones of composer James Newton Howard.
The Secrets of Dumbledore is a marked improvement over the previous installment of the Fantastic Beasts series. It is darker and more serious, but it still can’t get out from under some of the more tired tropes of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. The result is mediocrity. The days of Harry Potter’s coming of age and epic battle against Voldemort seem like a distant past.