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Secrets of Dumbledore – Magical 3-Card Monte

Cast of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore/Warner Bros.

Let’s get this out of the way: Fantastic Beasts - The Secrets of Dumbledore is a hot, hot mess of a film. I can’t decide if it’s a game of three-card-monte played on the audience or just a whole heapin’ helpin’ of WTF.

Here’s why.

Spoiler Alert!

If you haven’t yet seen Secrets of Dumbledore and plan to, read no further if you don’t want major spoilers.

This movie seems to have no idea what it wants to be. It’s a “Fantastic Beasts” movie, but the beasts are, with one exception, peripheral (and that exception is a huge MacGuffin, as I’ll explain later). Like much of the magic in the film, they’re tacked on.

Folks coming to the movie for a good fantasy with a side of creatures cute and scary will be disappointed to get a political thriller. Fans of the other Potter films hoping for two-plus hours of immersion in the magical world will likewise walk away unfulfilled. And Potterheads hoping for more character development and world-building will be mildly entertained, and more than mildly confused.

I don’t have a problem with genre-bending movies, but the bending must be intentional, and not much about this movie feels intentional.

In the way of so many action movies these days, SoD moves from action scene to action scene with the rest of the business functioning as so much mortar between them. Which is a shame, because this mortar is where the film’s strengths lie.

The Relationships

The best scenes are the ones that give us insight into the relationships between the major characters, especially the Dumbledore–Grindelwald scenes.

We finally get some clarification on a relationship that, so far, has been defined almost entirely by winks and nudges. In this film, Dumbledore says, on two occasions, that he was in love with Grindelwald. Hallelujah! (Except, I guess, in China.) Grindelwald doesn’t let on how he felt or feels for Dumbledore, although there is, perhaps, a hint in one of the film’s most effective lines: “Who’s going to love you now, Dumbledore?”

All of which sets up an interesting character study on a wizard who, in later years, will tout love as the strongest magic of all. In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore seems to be a man who uses (even weaponizes) love without ever really opening himself to it. His relationship with Grindelwald, as portrayed in SoD, gives some hints as to why.

The additional information we get on the infamous duel that killed Ariana Dumbledore sheds some further light on the difficult relationship between Albus and Aberforth. I had always believed, based on what Dumbledore tells Harry about his sister’s death in the Deathly Hallows “Kings Cross” scene, that the duel was three ways, between Albus, Aberforth, and Gellert, and that no one knew which of the three cast the curse that felled Ariana.

But SoD reveals that the only contenders for Ariana’s murderer were her brothers. That makes it all the more poignant and the animosity between Albus and Aberforth even more understandable.

(It also resolves a seeming inconsistency with canon introduced in Crimes of Grindelwald, i.e., how could Albus and Gellert have turned their wands against one another during the duel that killed Ariana if the blood pact—presumably made earlier—prevented it? Now, it looks like it was only Albus vs. Aberforth in that duel, so there we have it.)

Speaking of fraternal angst, the dungeon scene—which, for all its welcome humor bogs down the narrative—gives us a rebalancing of the somewhat fraught relationship between Newt and Theseus.

The fact that Newt will risk his life and take a detour from a desperately important plan to rescue his brother seems a significant change. Theseus,  a war hero and Auror, who in the previous films has mostly been a lecturing, condescending (and unwanted-hug-enforcing) presence in Newt’s life, and one who may have snatched Newt’s best friend away, is suddenly dependent for his life not only upon his brother’s love and courage, but also on his rather niche expertise.

As the parent of an Autistic kid with intense interests, I really enjoyed this. Many narratives involving Autistic people are either designed to glorify the folks who provide supports or to showcase so-called Autistic “superpowers” (such as mathematical ability or musical talent) in a modern-day freak-show frame. Newt’s ability with magical beasts is portrayed less as a “superpower” than it is an affinity for the misunderstood, and his expertise is the result of an intense interest coupled with hard work and study rather than his freakish brain.

The other important relationships in the film are given short shrift.

Tina is all but absent, stepping in at the last moment for a reunion scene with Newt that strains belief, as does the abrupt redemption of Queenie.

I like the Queenie–Jacob ship, but a quaint, fairytale wedding in Jacob’s Lower-East-Side bakery isn’t a satisfying way to wrap up a storyline that had Queenie become a lieutenant for the man who wants to destroy Muggles like her lover.

While it certainly underscores Jacob’s essential goodness that he still loves Queenie and willingly takes her back once she comes to her senses—all of which I buy, thanks largely to Dan Fogler’s terrific performance in the role—I would have liked at least some acknowledgment that her choice to join a genocidal maniac was … an awkward moment in the relationship.

Worse still was the unforgivable glossing over of the Credence narrative.

I mean, Jeebus Crikey. Credence was such a pivotal character in the last film, and here he’s almost an afterthought. It’s as if the film’s writers (Rowling and Potter-film veteran Steve Kloves) suddenly remembered that they had a plotline to tie up and threw in the bit about Credence being Aberforth’s son at the last minute.

I hope this development is explored in much more depth in the next film (although given the character’s grim prognosis and the actor’s personal troubles, I have my doubts). It’s such a throwaway here—revealed in a very casual-seeming conversation between Albus and Aberforth overheard by Newt—there is a real opportunity to explore the themes of parental love and abandonment, childhood trauma, and the outsized role of orphaned children in the Potter saga.

But there are apparently lots of throwaways in the FB series. Leta Lestrange and Nagini, important characters in the last film, and Nicolas Flamel (less important but still featured) are barely mentioned in this one. Leta, in particular, is reduced to a (nonsensical) plot device that seemed to have existed only to show Grindelwald’s cruelty when he removes the very memory of her from half-brother Yusuf Kama.

And what the heck was that character’s role, anyway? He’s such a non-entity that the memory scene has virtually no emotional punch. Although, I guess it’s convenient to have him suddenly help our heroes during the climax by knocking out some of Grindelwald’s henchmen. The actor, William Nadylam, seems to have little idea of what he’s supposed to be doing, but it hardly matters.

The brief McGonagall moments (despite the retcon) were fun. It was nice to see her interact with Aberforth and to see his obvious respect for her, and it certainly adds a bit of credence to the idea that she is Dumbledore’s right-hand-witch. The way Albus casually tells the group of would-be freedom fighters that “Minerva will take care of it” (“it” being their accommodations at Hogwarts) feels familiar to this McGonagall-watcher. Added to the (deleted) scene in CoG when Albus basically slams the door in her concerned face, it sets up a dynamic which could be explored later (but I doubt it will).

The Plot

This is not a movie about magic or fantastic beasts. It’s about election fraud.

As such, it hits many of the right notes: the nods at recent events, the evocation of the Weimar Republic and the growth of German fascism, the dangers of a certain brand of populism.

I suppose it’s comforting that wizarding global politics are even more fucked up than Muggle politics.

What kind of political system allows a single powerful dude to fully exonerate an international war criminal of all charges, thus (somehow) allowing him to stand for election to what is apparently the highest seat of wizarding power?

And what kind of broke-ass system allows the same guy to essentially cancel the vote (after, by the way, rationalizing the criminal’s candidacy by saying “let the people have their say”) and substitute election-by-psychic-pony?

Ahem.

Anyway, the plot that Dumbledore conceives has its merits. The idea of confounding (in the Muggle sense) the magically prescient Grindelwald with, as Jacob observes, a three-card-monte game of matching suitcases is cool and a time-honored heist-movie trope.

But then …

He sends all the decoys and the original to the same damn place?

So, Albus, “O” for idea, “T” for execution.

The Magic

Speaking of three-card monte, the magic in the film is intriguing and entirely unsatisfying. It’s like a giant game of obfuscation.

A lot of very cool tricks are introduced: the magical meeting between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (which belies what Dumbles told Harry about avoiding meeting Grindelwald again before their final duel, but anyway…), the liminal-space dueling, the blood-pact restraints on betrayal.

But they are never mentioned by the characters, except in the case of the blood pact, which we already knew kept Dumbledore and Grindelwald from fighting. And, as the SuperCarlinBrothers point out in their very detailed review of the film, some of this major magic breaks what we were shown in the Potter saga.

I get it.

Writing cohesive narratives that involve magic is tough. It makes creating believable obstacles difficult. But this film feels like they’re just giving up and waving their hands and saying, “Blah, blah, blah . . . magic!” to solve problems—like covert communication and Muggle exposure to wizarding events—that were significant in the Potter novels and films.

And what the actual fuck was the Muggle suitcase-shop scene all about? Y’all have magic that can create an entire zoo inside a battered leather bag, but you can’t magic up some basic copies? Instead, you have to tax this poor Muggle shopkeeper with creating six (I think) exact replicas in two days without letting him have more than a brief peek at the original?

I mean, that scene added literally nothing to the movie. (Other than to make magic look pretty useless.) Dumbledore could have whipped out his wand and conjured up the copies, no problem. Boom. Done.

Was the actor playing the shop owner someone’s out-of-work cousin?

The Blood Pact

But the most irksome of the three-card-monte magic is the blood pact.

It’s supposed to be complex magic and, presumably, very hard to break. When Newt gave Dumbledore the blood pact necklace his Niffler lifted from Grindelwald at the end of CoG, one assumed Dumbledore was going to get to work on figuring out how to break it. One (ok, me) also assumed that it would take some time, given that this happened in 1927 and we know the final confrontation between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (canonically) doesn’t occur until 1945.

But …

Funny story. Turns out, all Dumbles needed to do to kill the pact was cross spells with Grindelwald—ones with opposing intent, I guess—and the thing goes kablooey. This is disappointing.

The scene with the blood pact attacking Dumbledore if he even thought about acting against Grindelwald got me wondering if maybe Dumbles could have brought down Grindelwald much sooner if he had been willing to sacrifice himself. You know … a quick Avada Kedavra and Gelly goes down, poor, poor Albus nobly allowing the pact to kill him in the process. Or maybe that’s not how all this works.

But we don’t know, because the magic behind the pact is never fucking explained. No, a little wand-fu and it’s suddenly done and Albus and Gellert can go to town on each other (not in the fun way).

The Action Scenes

I’m not a huge connoisseur of action scenes, so I’m not going to comment in depth on the ones in this film, except to say that—aside from the quibbles noted above—I found the dueling scenes effective.

What I particularly liked is that they were relatively straightforward, with none of the fancy spells or showy wandwork we saw in the Potter films, just two dudes trying their best to kill (or at least disarm) one another.

In the Credence–Dumbledore duel, it’s clear why Grindelwald considered the former a good bet for killing Albus. In terms of sheer power, Credence’s Obscurus is a force to be reckoned with, and directed at Dumbledore, it is truly frightening.

When Dumbledore is at last able to duel Gellert, they just go after each other, and I really believed these guys were fighting with everything they had.

Keeping both duel sequences short and direct was a good call. The simplicity and power of these scenes was effective, and it was underscored by the (more familiar and Potteresque) magic in the other action sequences. The book-magic practiced by Lally Hicks (Merlin, I hate that name) was an especially delightful counterpoint.

The Characters (and Performances)

Speaking of Professor Hicks, I can’t quite decide how to feel about this character. On the one hand, it was nice to have a new badass witch in the mix, but on the other hand? I’m not sure how much she added.

SoD is remarkable for the near-total absence of Tina, who could have–and maybe should have?—fulfilled the role Lally played here. Tina’s an Auror, so having her on the team would have made sense, and it would have been helpful in terms of character development, as she’s always been one of the most poorly drawn in the franchise. We’re meant to presume she’s a smart, skilled magical practitioner, but she doesn’t show it much in the first two films. Nor is she especially nice, kind, or funny. One wonders what Newt sees in her that he doesn’t see in poor, lovelorn Bunty.

But I did enjoy Lally as a character and Jessica Williams’s funny, cool-as-a-cucumber performance (even if her wisecracking-dame-Katharine Hepburn-crossed-with-Rosalind-Russell accent seemed to belong to another movie entirely. Say, The Hudsucker Proxy).

This film clearly belonged to Dumbledore and Grindelwald, both of whom were well played. I enjoyed Law’s Hot Dumbledore in COG, and he builds on his portrayal admirably here. This is a tortured man who does a good job of hiding his torment from everyone but the audience. He’s recognizably the Dumbledore we know from Potter series, but still a bit callow and unsure of himself.

Mads Mikkelsen is an improvement over Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. As much as I enjoyed Depp’s performance in the prior movie, I think his cartoon-character villain would have been badly out of place in this grittier film. Mikkelsen makes a believable and chilling villain, a sociopath for whom cruelty isn’t the point, just an enjoyable side-effect of his particular brand of the will to power.

As (a sidelined) Newt, Eddie Redmayne gives his usual fine performance, but he hasn’t got much to do, emotionally speaking. He’s suitably horrified when called for, compassionate in the scene in which he tries to comfort Dumbledore, and funny doing the scorpion-crab dance, but I hope the future films give this character somewhere more interesting to go.

Alison Sudol’s Queenie is made dull(!) here, moping around Nurmengard or trying to ignore Jacob during the Berlin banquet scene, so her genuine joy at the wedding is a pleasant moment. And it was probably a good call to make a rather shocking change to her hair color, as it distracts from the changes wrought by Sudol’s apparent pregnancy during filming. (One might expect Queenie to look drawn and thin, given her distress, but Sudol’s lovely face is noticeably fuller and has what is often referred to as the radiance of pregnancy.)

As mentioned above, Dan Fogler as Jacob is terrific and brings great heart (as we’re told, ad nauseum, in the film), humor, and a grounding dose of humanity to the proceedings.

I’m not at all sure what Bunty was doing in this movie, except that the actress (Victoria Yeates) is a delight and fans liked her brief turn in the last movie.

The Missed Opportunities

The filmmakers made several curious choices, most of which served to lower the stakes, which may be my primary beef with the whole thing.

It’s telling that my fifteen-year-old, who likes Harry Potter but isn’t a Potterhead, found it dull. Because if you’re not already as deeply invested in these characters as die-hard fans are, the movie doesn’t give you much to care about.

SoD is essentially a character-driven narrative trying to be an action movie. Even the film’s cinematography, in a dark, shadowy, shades-of-gray tone, is closer to what you’d expect in a dark drama rather than an entry in a kid-centric fantasy franchise.

The allusions to troublesome politics, both historical and current, are obvious, but if they were going there, a bit more time spent on why and how they were so troublesome might have been helpful, particularly to younger audiences who may not understand the direct line between the film’s imagery and Nazism (and Trumpism).

As I recall, the previous films don’t ever spell out what Grindelwald’s actual crimes are–yes, he is shown murdering folks, but we never really hear why he’s such a threat to all wizard- and Muggle-kind. What nefarious plans, exactly, were he and Albus dreaming up back when they made the blood pact? And how did Grindelwald become a populist favorite? And why is it a Bad Thing?

When Dumbledore sends his message to Vogel (the German Minister for Magic? Or Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards? It’s never really spelled out), why is it so urgent? And what makes the minister’s decision to let Grindelwald stand for election “easy” rather than “right”?

And how is it so easy to convince all these witches and wizards gathered on a Bhutan mountaintop to allow the Qilin to make their choice for them? And again, why does it matter so much?

We aren’t told anything about the position being contested here, even its name. Presumably, the three candidates are standing for Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation, but what role does he or she or they play in governing the wizarding world? Why is it such a calamity if one bad guy gets elected?

The audience’s only real-world comparison is the General Secretary of the United Nations, and that position in the wrong hands hardly constitutes a threat to the world order. I need a little more context here to make me care who Psychic-Zombie-Bambi chooses.

Like the SuperCarlinBrothers, I really, really, really thought the Qilin was going to bow before Jacob. That would have given the filmmakers an opportunity to say something about Muggles and how wizards perceive them. Or maybe it could have chosen Newt, who is nothing if not pure-hearted, in an echo (and foreshadowing) of Dumbledore’s explanation to Harry about how only someone who wanted to find the Philosopher’s Stone but not use it could have gotten it.

But no. It’s Dumbledore. Sigh. Who rejects the power, which is then handed on to one of the two non-entities who were originally up for election, one of whom seemed to have disappeared from the film entirely. (Yes, it’s a nice moment when Vicência Santos, the candidate ultimately chosen, is the one who ends the Cruciatus Grindelwald casts on Jacob, but it would be nice to know a little more about her.)

So Dumbles nobly turns down the top job. We know from canon that he does, at some point, become Supreme Mugwump, despite not trusting himself with the power of the office of the British Minister for Magic, and is recalled by a vote. So, it’s unclear how much power the Supreme Mugwump actually has. Will the franchise address this at some point, or does it get wiped away with the Magical Retcon Stick?

Another thing I really, really thought would happen was that the Mysterious Woman with the suitcase in the Bhutan scenes would turn out to be Tina in disguise. Because it makes almost no sense that she’s not part of the Dream Team. And it would have made more sense in Dumbledore’s “no one can know everything” scheme to have a secret ace in the hole that only he knew about. But no, Tina was “too busy” to join up.

It Should Have Been a Series

Like its predecessor, SoD tries to pack too much into an already overlong runtime. As in CoG, plot threads are picked up, twisted into knots, and dropped willy-nilly.

Making films (or writing commercial fiction) in a series is a needle-threading proposition. You have to balance wrapping things up in a satisfying way with leaving enough to entice consumers to plunk down their Galleons for the next installment.

This franchise gives me the same sinking feeling that I had watching series seven and eight of Game of Thrones: no one is driving this bus. One hopes that there is an overarching narrative for the series, one that both surprises and ties things up in a satisfying way.

But I get the sense that the writers and producers of the Fantastic Beasts franchise are just flailing about, throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.

This entire thing might have worked better as a limited series, maybe one with several seasons centered around different (but possibly related) arcs. This would give the filmmakers the scope to do some more interesting things, namely:

  • Give Newt and his beasts and his family relationships (and, if we really must, the romance with Tina) what could be a fun story;
  • Give the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship full attention with all the complex magic and fanservice anyone could want;
  • Explore the American wizarding world through Jacob and Queenie’s romance, with attention to the nuances of a Muggle-wizard relationship;
  • Give Credence’s story its due, with an exploration of Obscurials and what happens when a wizard has to suppress what he really is.

Perhaps there’s no appetite for that. But I do wonder if there’s going to be an appetite for the next two films in the franchise. According to almighty film industry rag Variety, SoD has continued the downward trend for FB films’ opening box-office takes. Rumor is that Warner Bros is waiting to see how the film does before greenlighting the next two installments.

So this may, in fact, be the last FB film.

Oh, well. At least you won’t have to read another one of my reviews.