This review of “Fantastic Beasts: Secrets of Dumbledore” was originally published April 5, 2022.
With all the controversy swirling around J.K. Rowling’s shameful anti-trans rhetoric, and with more than four years passing since the previous “Fantastic Beasts” installment (which was the lowest-grossing “Wizarding World” movie to date), one might conceivably wonder for whom, exactly, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is really being made.
Certainly this film doesn’t exist for fans who might want to, for example, learn some secrets of Dumbledore. The big “new” revelations about this franchise’s (arguably) most beloved character — previously played by a wizened Richard Harris and an impish Michael Gambon and now portrayed by a smirking Jude Law — are all commonly known to fans of the series, having been revealed either in the “Deathly Hallows” novel or, unceremoniously, by Rowling on press tours and social media.
We’re hardly a minute into “The Secrets of Dumbledore” before — for the first time, over a quarter of a century since the publication of the first “Harry Potter” novel, and years after Rowling said so — Dumbledore confirms out loud that he’s queer. He states this in no uncertain terms to his arch-rival, Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), by saying he’s been in love with him. It’s an entirely chaste love, reciprocated only by a twinkle in Mikkelsen’s eye (reminiscent of his earlier turn as a cannibal serial killer in “Hannibal”), but the film treats it like little more than a plot point.
Then again, practically everything is just a plot point in “The Secrets of Dumbledore.” Director David Yates (who has helmed every “Wizarding World” film for the last 15 years) has reduced almost its entire cast to wandering storytelling devices. If you had any affection for Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the unlikely introverted hero of this franchise, you’ll be disappointed to find his screen time dramatically reduced and his impact on the story relegated primarily to the rescue of a single, solitary animal. He’s always around, but he has less to do with events than ever. He no longer even drives the story forward: That’s now Dumbledore’s job.
Also, if you had any interest in Newt’s ongoing, awkward love story with American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), you may want to prepare yourself for a film in which she has so little screen time — we’re talking seconds — that the character may well have been replicated entirely via CGI. Intriguing side characters like Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and newcomer Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) spend disappointing amounts of time explaining what happened in the previous films to characters who were there and saw it all with their own eyes, and then mostly just being around, casting spells when the story requires.
It’s hard to care much about any of the many, many characters in “The Secrets of Dumbledore” because hardly any of them have a meaningful storyline or character arc of their own. Even the ones who have meaningful storylines and character arcs built-in from previous installments — like Credence Barebone, aka Aurelius Dumbledore (Ezra Miller) — seem to have lost almost all interest in whatever they were doing when “The Crimes of Grindelwald” ended and now seem grimly determined to plod through to the finale.
“The Crimes of Grindelwald,” you may recall, ended with Grindelwald announcing that he planned to prevent the forthcoming horrors of World War II by starting a wizard uprising. This really important plot point is mentioned not one single, solitary time in “The Secrets of Dumbledore.”
Instead, Grindelwald spends this whole film manipulating wizard politics to position himself as a legitimate candidate for the upcoming election for President of the World, or rather “The Confederation of Magic,” an enormously overarching political system that you would think would have been relevant to the original “Harry Potter” series, but apparently not, for… reasons, presumably.
To prevent Grindelwald’s ascension, Dumbledore assembles a team of characters from the previous films to do what can only be described as “stuff.” Since Grindelwald can see into the future, the only way to surprise him is to split up and to perform seemingly random tasks that may or may not have anything to do with Dumbledore’s master plan. It all sounds very clever on paper, but in practice it mostly means that screenwriters J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves have carte blanche to conjure up any set piece they want — and if it’s hard to follow or seems pretty random, they’ve got a pre-existing excuse.
While many of the subplots of “Secrets” fall flat or go nowhere (usually both), there are globetrotting sequences of political intrigue that sometimes make Yates’ latest foray play out like an exciting, fantastical espionage thriller. Political assassination attempts and elaborately choreographed misdirects make this otherwise familiar story look somewhat fresh, at least in fits and starts. The chilly, desaturated cinematography by George Richmond (“Free Guy”) helps solidify the film’s severe demeanor, as though there was genuine import to all this political intrigue.
But unless you are extremely invested in wizarding elections, there’s not a lot to grab onto in “The Secrets of Dumbledore.” The only characters with genuine emotional drama are either given very little screen time or they’re Dumbledore. And Dumbledore’s whole storyline revolves around a romantic relationship that might be verbally referenced but which takes place entirely off-camera. It’s the absolute smallest tangible step that could possibly have been taken towards improving this franchise’s queer representation, and it’s hard not to subtract even more points for making the Wizarding World’s only gay love affair indelibly linked with Dumbledore’s brief teenage dalliance with fascism.
Were it not for the effervescent on-screen charisma of Dan Fogler as the hapless yet unexpectedly heroic muggle baker Jacob Kowalski, who keeps getting roped into these magical shenanigans whether he likes it or not, there would be very little to genuinely like about this latest installment. (Well, that, and an extended sequence where Newt distracts a swarm of deadly spider-scorpions using the power of interpretive dance.) Fogler’s Kowalski is a constant reminder that building a gigantic world means very little unless there are people who live there that you love. And Kowalski is immensely lovable.
Would that anything else in “The Secrets of Dumbledore” followed suit. This latest entry in the franchise mostly goes through the motions, making a big deal out of revelations that fans will find old-hat, unceremoniously closing the door or ignoring storylines that previously seemed to be important, and sidelining characters who used to be the protagonists. There’s not a CGI monster that can distract from how un-fantastic this “Beasts” is.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.