Set in the “Wizarding World” cinematic universe, The Secrets of Dumbledore is the third film in the series that began with 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Having delved into the backstory of power-hungry wizard Gellert Grindelwald in the previous film (2018’s The Crimes of Grindelwald), Secrets continues the narrative trajectory of repositioning the Fantastic Beasts series as a de facto prequel to the overall Harry Potter franchise.
The film opens with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) attempting to secure a Qilin before it can be captured by the forces of Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, Doctor Strange). Blessed with the power to read human souls, the Qilin will play a crucial role in determining the next leader (Supreme Mugwump) of the wizarding world.
Curiously, we never learn just why two entirely self-serving groups are the only parties searching for a creature that will determine the fates of millions, but logic rarely applies in franchises with time-turners.
The election conspiracy
By leveraging fake news and radicalized xenophobia, Grindelwald downplays his career of criminality and joins the election on a platform of racial purity. With election day drawing ever closer, and his hands tied by a blood pact enacted when he and Gellert were lovers, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain Marvel) enlists the help of Newt and his friends to prevent Grindelwald’s electoral victory. But when Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner, Emma) is arrested and their muggle friend Jacob (Dan Fogler, Balls of Fury) is framed for attempted murder, it falls to Scamander to set things right, while also uncovering the (so-called) secrets of Dumbledore.
That a known criminal making a serious run for public office isn’t the most outlandish thing in a movie about witchcraft and wizardry actually says more about our world than it does about Grindelwald, but hey, that’s politics.
It’s too familiar
While the synopsis may seem somewhat crowded, it’s nowhere near the incoherent mess of Crimes of Grindelwald, but that isn’t saying much, as the majority of what happens here merely retreads ground we’ve already covered in other Harry Potter movies:
- A dark wizard weaponizing racism to overthrow an ineffectual bureaucracy? Check.
- Albus Dumbledore manipulating young wizards to accomplish his agenda? Double check.
- The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry serving as an inexplicable nexus for major political (and/or magical) intrigues? Check, check, and check.
Out with the new, in with the old
It’s a shame, really, as the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a charming, whimsical trip to a time and place in the Harry Potter universe where seemingly anything could happen. Set in 1926, decades before the adventures of “The Boy Who Lived”, Fantastic Beasts brought life to Newt Scamander, who had previously just been a name on Harry Potter’s school reading list.
Along for the ride were his muggle (“no-maj”) friend Jacob, and American witch sisters Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Alien: Covenant, Sleeping With Other People). In the new film, set in 1932, fans will be disappointed to discover that Newt, Jacob, and Queenie have been demoted to the status of supporting players, while Tina fares even worse, only actually appearing in one scene.
Whenever the main Potter films glossed over (or outright excised) certain areas of character development, fans could at least turn to author J.K. Rowling’s original books to help fill the gaps. Fantastic Beasts fans have no such luck – with this series having being developed almost entirely for the big screen, what we’ve seen thus far is likely all we’re going to get, as the screenplay by Rowling herself and series stalwart Steve Kloves (writer of every main Potter film except Order of the Phoenix) deliberately pivots the story towards Dumbledore and Grindelwald.
The problem with prequels
In building a film around the backstory of two characters whose ultimate fates we already know, the film falls into the prequel trap of retroactively making the universe it’s supposedly building on impossibly small by having everybody of significance encounter each other at some point in the past. Remember Professor McGonagall? She technically (really) shouldn’t be born yet, but you recognize her name, so here she is! Remember Hogwarts? Here it is, but…well, not much different, really, but doesn’t the theme tune make you nostalgic?
The overreliance on references and uninspired fanservice do little to distract from the astonishing leaps of logic needed to overcome the film’s contrivances — a pre-headmaster Dumbledore brazenly running black ops briefings during students’ mealtimes in Hogwarts’ Great Hall is bad enough, but the “secret” and circumstances behind Credence Barebone’s (Ezra Miller, Justice League) lineage are so ill-conceived as to be laughable.
The few, the forgotten, the fantastic beasts
Ironically, the film really comes to life in the handful of scenes where Scamander actually gets to use the magizoology skills he’s supposedly known for. Whether he’s helping a Qilin give birth or rescuing his brother from a creature-infested dungeon, Redmayne is legitimately entertaining when he isn’t wasted on servicing a storyline 60 years in his character’s future.
As it stands, these scenes now exist as tantalizing glimpses of adventures we could have gotten, if the filmmakers had more confidence in their material.
For all that it gets wrong, Secrets of Dumbledore delivers one scene that validates years of fan speculation, as Dumbledore and Grindelwald meet for a tête-à-tête where the two all but declare their undying love for each other. Within a matter of seconds, Mikkelsen negates any memories of Johnny Depp (who’d played Grindelwald previously), layering his signature menace with a palpable (mutual) attraction towards Law’s Dumbledore.
Playing off each other wonderfully, the pair make for a surprisingly believable pair of former lovers, making this writer wish that the movie would do something, anything, interesting with that chemistry, but it wasn’t to be. Much like their final showdown, it’s over far too soon to be really enjoyable.
The bottom line
While certainly more coherent than The Crimes of Grindelwald, this latest foray into the Harry Potter franchise nevertheless represents a disservice, not just to the Fantastic Beasts series, but the “Wizarding World” as a whole. Whatever happens next, it’s going to take one heck of a spell to bring back the magic.
Have you seen The Secrets of Dumbledore? Tell us what you think in the comments!