The magic is back! Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore represents a return to form for the Harry Potter spinoff series. After the disappointing Crimes of Grindelwald, veteran HP director David Yates crafts a fantastical movie that is sure to entertain Wizarding World fans. While the title suggests that there are many secrets the Dumbledore is hiding, the title is misleading because no one is keeping secrets in the movie. For those that were hoping for a character-study movie on Dumbledore and his relationship with Grindelwald, you won’t find much exploration here (as they discuss the fallout of their relationship in the opening scene). Most of the focus of the movie is on the action plot moreso than the character-driven elements, with the exception of Jacob Kowalski. It’s Kowalski’s story and love for Queenie that will dominate the emotional subplot. And for good reason: Kowalski is the best written character in the spinoff series. If you’re searching for something deeper, you can read an exploration of different images of relationships throughout the movie, but to be honest, that would be a little too generous. Suffice it to say, the movie may be largely one-dimensional, but that singular dimension is enough to meet most of the expectations of a fantasy movie. More so than the first two movies in this series, this one feels the most connected to the original Harry Potter movies. In that, there was an opportunity to spend an inordinate amount of time waxing nostalgic; but instead, there was just enough of a glimpse into familiar locations to remind us that the Fantastic Beasts takes places in the Wizarding World.
Professor Albus Dumbledore knows the powerful, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is moving to seize control of the wizarding world. Unable to stop him alone, he entrusts magizoologist Newt Scamander to lead an intrepid team of wizards and witches. They soon encounter an array of old and new beasts as they clash with Grindelwald’s growing legion of followers.
Okay, we need to address the elephant in the room: Mads Mikkelsen replacing Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. Between the controversy associated with the court battles and sexual battery charges against Depp by ex-wife Amber Heard and J.K. Rowling’s social media accusations of transphobia, this movie has undeniable baggage. And I am not here to discuss either topic, but we cannot address this movie without acknowledging that these high profile situations have certainly had an impact on the advertising and experience of the movie for many people. Beyond being cognizant that Mikkelsen replaced Depp because of Depp’s legal problems, neither pieces of baggage affected my reception of the movie. Still, audiences are given a different Grindelwald than was witnessed in the Crimes of Grindelwald. In contrast to Depp’s Grindelwald, Mikkensen’s is more dynamic and dark, two qualities that are fitting of the character. Had Depp reprised his role as Dumbledore, it’s entirely possible that we would’ve got Jack Sparrow as Grindelwald. Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald is terrifying at times–not so much because of the horrendous things he does–but because of that plus the fact he is reminiscent of a Machiavellian dictator in the vein of some real-world examples throughout history and even today.
Thematically, The Secrets of Dumbledore is about a topic(s) that should feel incredibly relevant: change and progress. The Ministry of Magic is at a crossroads, and so are Dumbledore, Kowalski, Grindelwald, and others. Too many characters, really. Some streamlining of characters would’ve been nice. Anyway. Furthermore, there are ancillary ideas of healing, learning from mistakes, and how to be a good citizen (or lack thereof) in the Wizarding World. Individually, all these ideas work well in the Harry Potter universe, but collectively these themes and ideas work to make the movie feel overstuffed. Clearly, Rowling knows complex plotting, but it feels as though she was so preoccupied with the desire to intentionally create a complex plot that her characters and story suffered. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is enjoyable! But it is more likely to encourage you to rewatch the Harry Potter movies than it is to become overly emotionally invested in Fantastic Beasts.
Is the magic there? Yes. Is it closer to form than the last one? Yes. Is there untapped potential in this movie? Yes. If you’re a fan of the Wizarding World, then you will likely find this movie entertaining! But if you’re hoping for the endearing nature of the original series, then you may be disappointed.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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