After nearly a four year hiatus from the big screen, audiences return to author J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The series, which began in 2016 as a refreshing and entertaining prequel set several decades before Harry Potter was even born, started off with some promise, highlighting the titular magical creatures in question, while shedding light on the history of the Wizarding World. The film also featured an unconventional protagonist in Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an introverted, yet kindhearted Magizoologist, and a Hufflepuff alumnus of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The story of Fantastic Beasts would continue with The Crimes of Grindelwald in 2018, in which we are further introduced to the history behind Gellert Grindelwald (who was portrayed in this film by Johnny Depp) and are acquainted with a young Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Unfortunately, this sequel was a major step down from its predecessor, focusing on constant exposition and very little character development, with a story that just doesn’t mesh well with the exploits of an eccentric Magizoologist like Newt Scamander.
With Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling attempt to course-correct what started out as a promising prequel series to the iconic Harry Potter series. Steve Kloves, who wrote all the screenplays for the films (with the exception of Order of the Phoenix) returns to co-write the script with the Wizarding World creator, and although the film is an improvement over the monotonous expository narrative of The Crimes of Grindelwald, it still falls short in its attempts to reclaim the magic seen from the original 8-film saga of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore finds the titular Hogwarts professor with the knowledge of Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen) planning to seize control of the Wizarding World in the hopes to manipulate the results of an upcoming election in his favor. Dumbledore calls on Newt Scamander to assemble a team alongside numerous other wizards and his Muggle friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) on a perilous journey to stop this.
Bringing back Steve Kloves to help co-write the script for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore helped rein in J.K. Rowling’s shortcomings as a screenwriter that was exhibited in the previous two films, particularly The Crimes of Grindelwald. Through this, the story is certainly an improvement, but still struggles with its character development. The ultimate disappointment in the narrative trajectory of these three films is in how it doesn’t give its supposed main character Newt Scamander a satisfying arc. The sequels both rely on telling us about his life, rather than showing, so it’s difficult to feel attached to him within stories that pivoted away from his personal growth as a priority and more on being an ensemble story about a certain historical period of the Wizarding World.
Much of the headlines about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore are on the re-casting of the character of Gellert Grindelwald. Actor Mads Mikkelsen took over the role after Johnny Depp was asked to resign due to negative publicity as a result of his ongoing legal battles. Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is a highlight of the film, showcasing that perhaps he should’ve been cast in the role in the first place. He brings a subdued, charismatic charm that leaves viewers understanding as to why some may have fallen for his cult of personality. Jude Law is once again an inspired choice to play the young Albus Dumbledore, fitting perfectly into the earlier years of the future Headmaster of Hogwarts. The film opens with a scene of both Grindelwald and Dumbledore sitting together sharing a cup of coffee, in which Dumbledore reflects on his romantic feelings for him. The scene is intriguing thanks to both Mads Mikkelsen and Jude Law’s subdued performances, giving us a sense at their shared history before things went chaotic.
Eddie Redmayne returns as the supposed main protagonist of the Fantastic Beasts series. As one should expect from the Academy Award-winning actor, he works as well as you would expect him to as Newt Scamander, and although his characterization still leaves a bit to be desired, his performance helps elevate the material. Ezra Miller returns as Credence Barebone, now revealed to be Aurelius Dumbledore, the nephew of Albus and the illegitimate son of Aberforth. Ezra Miller has proven to be a more-than-capable performer, and they continue to exude an unsettling sense of darkness whenever they appear onscreen in this role, although much of Aurelius’ backstory relies too much on exposition.
Rounding out many of the returning players from previous Fantastic Beasts films are Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Muggle-baker Jacob Kowalski and powerful Legilimens Queenie Goldstein respectively. The duo’s romantic chemistry was at the heart of the previous two films, with the second filming finding Queenie join Grindelwald’s team in the hopes that this could lead her to happiness with Jacob in the future. Dan Fogler remains charming without going too over-the-top as the Muggle amongst the team of wizards working to bring down Grindelwald. As for Alison Sudol’s Queenie, she gets significantly less to do, and is limited to small moments of her pining for Jacob. Callum Turner also returns as Newt’s brother Theseus Scamander, while newcomer Jessica Williams joins the cast as Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks, both are capable performers that help elevate their limited material.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is not without its moments. The charm of the film’s cast helps make the film watchable, and for fans of the history of the Wizarding World, they get more in-depth with some of the lore, particularly in regards to the Dumbledore family. However, much of the film’s narrative shortcomings are on display when ironically, we return to Hogwarts, in which we hear some of the iconic Harry Potter score from John Williams starts swelling. While fans may get a minor nostalgia rush, these sequences come off as a half-hearted attempt to win back fans by reminding them of the magic of the original 8 films rather than anything that the present narrative showcases.
Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore improves over The Crimes of Grindelwald, but still falls short in capturing the cinematic magic of the original 8 Harry Potter films. The series’ ambitions for a five-film story seem to be pretty lofty, and it’s uncertain if those will ever come into fruition. These films seem to care more about plot than character, the latter of which is the main reason why readers and audiences alike kept returning to Hogwarts for all seven years of Harry’s magical journey, and ultimately why these films haven’t captured nearly a fraction of that original magic that left audiences wanting to come back for more.
Stay tuned for the latest news regarding the future of the Harry Potter franchise beyond Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more content!