As I sat in my seat in the special screening of ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’, while surrounded by excited fans in their house robes and carrying wands, I came to the realisation that, while it had only been four years since the release of the previous film ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,’ I didn’t have any recollection about the earlier film at all.
Of course, I remember that Eddie Redmayne played Newt Scamander and that it was a period film in the Harry Potter universe. But none of the plotlines of the previous film had stuck with me except those of Queenie (played by Alison Sudol). Queenie was the only character that had left an imprint on me in the whole series.
I couldn’t remember what the crimes of Grindelwald were and what all of this had to do with the fantastic beasts. I had hoped that the opening of the film would help me catch up to the events of the last film but instead, it opens in medias res with Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) having tea with Grindelwald (played by Mads Mikkelsen) talking about things I wasn’t sure of and a revelation that we were all aware of (though the audience around me still reacted as if it was new information).
And then it goes to the opening credits and a rather dark scene (was the scene just unbelievably dark or does the SM Aura Premiere theater need to clean its lens?) of Newt observing another one of the fantastic beasts.
A lot of plot happens before we shift to Jacob (played by Dan Fogler) and his life without Queenie. We are introduced to a new character, Lally (played by Jessica Hicks), and then we are thrust into the main plot of the film.
The movie plays out like this throughout its 142-minute runtime. Reintroduces us to old characters (Ezra Miller as Credence, Callum Turner as Theseus) while opening a new plotline involving Grindelwald as some rising name in the wizarding world for his populist views of eradicating the non-magical humans (called muggles) as they pose a threat to the wizarding world.
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There’s an election that’s happening and in the middle of it, Dumbledore sends Newt and his friends to a quest to stop Grindelwald from swaying the public to take his war seriously.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ is a movie that is all plot. Our heroes are sent on a quest and it’s one challenge after the other while Grindelwald gathers his forces and Dumbledore has his own little side adventures to follow. The movie jumps from Newt and Theseus to Jacob, then Grindelwald, and then to Credence, and then to Queenie in such a flurry of story that it doesn’t quite feel cohesive or whole.
There are lots of magical moments in the film that make you wonder why exactly is Grindelwald so afraid of the muggles? When wizards can do such amazing things with a wave of their wand, what chance do ordinary beings have against them? Never does the film ever take the time to impress upon us the danger of Grindelwald’s philosophy. The stakes are made to feel big – Dumbledore and other characters say it all the time – but never does the film ever show us what exactly those stakes are.
And this is my biggest issue with this film. While the fans around me were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the mention of a character’s name or a mystical effect a character does or an antic made by one of the cute fantastic beasts of Newt, the film never feels grounded in anything tangible or concrete. There’s imagery used to compare Grindelwald to any bigoted populist president in contemporary society – a fantastical Hitler, so to speak – but there’s no danger present in the scenes other than the dangerous rhetoric.
Albus is merely good because he is against Grindelwald, but there’s no real scene that ever shows us his goodness. Newt’s moral center has been established in the earlier films but he undergoes no internal struggle that allows me to invest in his character.
The only real character whose internal struggle feels developed and whole in the movie is of Queenie but she has to share her screen time with all the other characters and the busyness of the plot.
From the way the audience was reacting, ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ comes off to me as an exclusive cinematic event that caters only to fans and those invested in the lore. As someone with no real attachments to the franchise, it was incredibly difficult to feel included in this journey. While it had a lot to say about populist statements that lead to bigotry and war, it never makes any of it feel palpable or real. Instead, it is more dead set on highlighting how magical the wizarding world is.
But they’ve already done that in the Harry Potter series. What else do they have to offer?