NOC Review: ‘Secrets of Dumbledore’ is Not Bad, Not Quite ‘Fantastic’

The Wizarding World is in peril, both from a narrative standpoint, and a real-world one. Indeed, the franchise has had one hell of an uphill battle to conquer. What once stood as the crown jewel of Warner Bros. has been marred with controversy since the previous installment of the Fantastic Beasts franchise debuted in 2018.

From public incidents involving franchise stars, Johnny Depp and Ezra Miller, as well as anti-trans sentiments from series creator, JK Rowling, to the overall less-than-stellar box office and critical performance of The Crimes of Grindelwald, one could easily proclaim the entire endeavor has been cursed. Yet, after years of all that, here we are, on the heels of the release of the latest installment: Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

I’ve got to be honest. Sometimes being a critic can be difficult. Real-life issues can easily impair perspective, regardless of whether or not those issues truly impact narrative, character, or any elements having to do with the actual storytelling aspects of a film. But it’s important to remember to evaluate a story through an objective lens as much as possible, even if some of those involved may be monsters. I realize that may not be the way many see it. And for that I wouldn’t blame anyone, given the truly low-lows we’ve seen many involved stoop to. But regardless, for me, the objective of this review will be to focus entirely and exclusively on the quality of the movie as a story, a continuation of the franchise, and a work of cinema as a whole.

Therefore, in spite of all of the downfalls that have plagued the series, I must admit there are still things I actually enjoy about it, and about this film. Don’t get me wrong. Gone are the days where movies set in the Wizarding World were all going to be slam dunks. But admittedly, the franchise still has a way with making its characters rather endearing. Such is the case with Newt Scamander, Jacob Kowalski, Bunty, the Goldsteins, and Albus Dumbledore. And it is because of my affection for these characters, that The Secrets of Dumbledore is quite acceptable. It’s not great. But there’s a lot about it I did enjoy, and it is an overall improvement over its predecessor, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

The premise of this installment is as follows: Eight years following the events of Crimes of Grindelwald, the dark wizard Grindelwald has concocted a plan to assemble an army of followers to help him attain power as the head of the International Confederation of Wizards (The UN of the Wizarding World). Dumbledore, unable to physically move against his former lover due to a blood pact between them, has thereby recruited Newt Scamander, his brother Thesius, Jacob Kowalski, Newt’s assistant Bunty, Yusuf Kama, and Ilvermorny professor, Eulalie “Lally” Hicks as a private team to aid in foiling Grindelwald’s plans. Concurrently, Dumbledore must also discover the truth about his connection to the mysterious Credence, who has now sworn allegiance to Grindelwald’s army.

The thing about Secrets of Dumbledore is that it’s half of a good movie. The last half of the film reveals some pretty compelling secrets about the Dumbledore family, and even features a cathartic scene of revelations that fans familiar with the story of Albus and Aberforth have been looking forward to hearing since Deathly Hallows. These clean up a lot of the narrative issues the previous film introduced to the franchise, making me a bit happier overall. There’s also a lot of whimsy to be had, and a lot of fun wizarding action that evokes some of the chaotic greatness the original Potter series is known for; particularly during the climactic “shell game” sequences. Most importantly, there’s a point and a goal to all of this, meaning this installment helps progress the story of this franchise in ways Crimes of Grindelwald didn’t.

There’s also a lot of really terrific beasts action going on in this film, which should really be the point of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. The central MacGuffin of the film is, in fact, a beast. And there are stand out moments with franchise veterans Pickett the Bowtruckle, and Teddy the Niffler. Plus there’s a terrifically funny and tense scene involving Newt and Thesius having to deal with manticore problems.

However, the franchise still takes two steps forward, and one step back. Though many franchise messes are resolved by the end of the film that will mollify complaints fans have had with the second installment, this third one still opens up a lot of minor questions about the purpose and point of this franchise. Starting with the fact that, once more, the film and this franchise still remains uninvested in its central character, Newt Scamander. This is a franchise about Dumbledore, and Newt is essentially a “Nick Carroway” character.

This is a huge shame because Eddie Redmayne once again pulls in a charming performance. There’s no one else that can pull off the reluctant hero as well as Redmayne, who puts in such an earnest and dedicated performance, swiveling one moment, and giving the sincere speech the next. And the very essence and kindness exhibited by Newt throughout this franchise, and especially how empathetic he is in this movie is a testament to his strength as a franchise underdog hero.

So it’s such a shame that despite being as important as he is as a man of action, he literally has no arc in this movie. Newt is the same person he is in the end of the movie as the beginning. And as much as I hate to say it, despite how lackluster Crimes of Grindelwald is, Newt at least had a defined arc in that one, going from non-committal to taking a side and stand by the end. Given how great Newt is as a character, I wish the franchise would just be about him.

There are also several characters completely absent from this movie that either get half or zero explanations for what happened to them. Tina Goldstein is essentially written out for most of it. And there are zero explanations for where Nagini and Nicolas Flamel are. Given the previous entry sought to put such importance on both characters, to completely ignore their existence in this installment seems odd. I’ll get to more about the problematic nature of excluding Nagini a bit later.

In terms of at least focusing on the positives of the movie’s characters, I’ll say that stand out roles and performances are absolutely given to Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, newcomer Jessica Williams as Lally Hicks, Victoria Yeates as Bunty, and of course, Jude Law and Mads Mikkelson as Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Fogler and Williams are paired up for much of the movie and the comedic chemistry between the two is great! They make a very unlikely, yet likable duo. Williams’ Hicks is such a fun and charismatic presence for the group, with a daring sense of adventure, and a courageous spirit. Yeates’ Bunty is also a joy to see in a much more expanded role than what she got in Crimes of Grindelwald. Her soft-spoken spirit but massive heart embodies the franchise’s whole theme of greatness coming from the most unlikely people, places, and things. She’s adorable, sweet, and brave.

Law’s version of Dumbledore is terrific as well, adding the same warm yet rebellious spirit Richard Harris incorporated into his version of the character. And Mikkelson, stepping into the shoes of Johnny Depp, is charismatic and really makes the character his own. I will admit I missed what Depp brought to the role, but much like I felt with Michael Gambon taking over the Dumbledore role in Prisoner of Azkaban, Mikkelson’s performance is still relatively strong in its own unique way.

As far as the negatives of this movie go, the biggest issue with it is that the first half of the movie is largely chaotic, confusing, and a bit pointless in some ways. Once you get through it, the movie gets much better and ends strongly. But getting through the first half is admittedly difficult. Much of this part of the movie narratively centers on the characters’ needs to be unpredictable and chaotic as a strategy to confuse Grindelwald. Unfortunately, it also confuses the audience, leading to a string of random events that pay off in some ways eventually, but not entirely. In other words, when the group is split up to create this chaos, some of the pairs play a key role in Dumbledore’s overall plan, while others just seem to be doing things. Again once you get through this, the movie does get better, but, regardless of the narrative explanation for it, I couldn’t help but ask what the point was of all of it other than to unreasonably extend the movie’s length.

To elaborate on a point I made above, the movie also has a tendency to be a bit confusing — even to those well versed in Potter mythos. I consider myself to be a pretty big fan of this world, and even I was left asking “what’s happening” multiple times during the movie. For instance, Yates introduces two visually driven moments in this movie that will remind audiences of the Mirror Dimension from Doctor Strange. Characters go into a pocket dimension to do battle without harming the actual real world. Having literally never seen or heard of anything like this from previous Potter mythology, I was definitely confused at what was happening during those scenes.

Additionally, there seems to be a lot of background knowledge required about Wizarding World politics and blood pacts that are necessary for this story. Knowledge that would feed into things such as how and why elections happen in this universe, or how the blood pact works or can be broken. This is stuff that I don’t believe was ever explored in the original Potter novels and films, or Pottermore as far as I remember, and it left me confused for a bit of the movie.

In addition to this, I need to comment on the poor representation this franchise has shown for the Asian and Latino communities. In Secrets of Dumbledore, not only do you completely get rid of Nagini, who is fully absent without explanation in this movie, but you also have an Asian Minister of Magic and a Latino Minister of Magic who do absolutely nothing other than serve as background props for key scenes and plot points. This really upset me and another colleague of mine knowing that for once, there’s an Asian not awfully named “Cho Chang” in this movie, and he just stands there doing nothing. It reeks of forced diversity within a franchise where People of Color outside of the Black community are present for the sake of giving the illusion of diversity, but are ultimately ignored all together, showcasing the hollowness of that intention.

Diversity issues aside, however, overall, The Secrets of Dumbledore is still a vast improvement over its predecessor, and represents a bit of a step forward for the franchise. Though it doesn’t always know what to do with its characters, which could lead to moments of pointlessness and confusion, there are still moments of old school Potter charm, coupled with good lines and good performances to counter the narrative issues of the film, making things modestly entertaining. If you are completely done with this franchise, regardless of whether those reasons are based on the narrative or based on real-life rationale, I don’t blame you.

However, while most I know do not share this sentiment, I will say for myself that this one left me warm enough to the idea of seeing this franchise complete its announced five-installment run, just because I like the characters and want to see where they go from here. Perhaps it’s curiosity, or perhaps nostalgia. But in my modest opinion, I think there might still be minor traces of magic left in this franchise, if (much like a fantastic beast) you know where to find it.

Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B-
Overall Score (on a representation level): C-

One thought on “NOC Review: ‘Secrets of Dumbledore’ is Not Bad, Not Quite ‘Fantastic’

Comments are closed.