The Real Secret Is… No One Cares: Review of “Secrets of Dumbledore”
SPOILERS FOR SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
The enjoyment derived from the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is inversely proportional to the level of emotional investment in these films. This means I am happy to report that I quite enjoyed myself at my opening-day viewing of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.
When our group of 20-ish Potter fans convened outside the movie theater, we did an icebreaker: Name one thing you remember happening in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The answers were as absurd as they were hilarious, and it was clear that none of us had any clue what was happening in this franchise, which was as true now as it was in 2018 after seeing that movie. At the theater, I was the only one in a full-blown costume, and the theater itself wasn’t exactly packed to the gills. It was clear that, but for some dedicated corners of the Internet, everyone had wholly disengaged from the franchise.
And good thing too. Because while Secrets of Dumbledore is a VAST improvement over its predecessor… it still isn’t any good. To those withholding judgment from Crimes of Grindelwald in the hope that the franchise would course-correct enough to redeem that film, I would be very curious if that hope is still alive after this installment. Because while this film is not as bleak and boring as the last one, it still is in no way coherent.
The creators are aware of this and engage in a bit of lampshading to wave it away. Apparently, Grindelwald has the Sight or some magical ability to see the future. The only way to combat that is to have a plan that is so chaotic and makes so little sense that he won’t be able to puzzle out what’s going on. Yeah, sure, and that has nothing to do with heading off criticism that the events of the film are chaotic and make no sense!
So the film assembles a large cast of characters, most of whom get zero development, and sends them off on whacky missions without even a pretense of cohesion. In a well-circulated promotional clip, they list off the members of the merry gang – “a professor,” “a Magizoologist,” “an indispensable assistant,” “a descendant of a sketchy wizarding family.” That is about as much as we know about most of these people, both at the beginning and end of the film. (It’s also among several instances where the franchise is clearly aware of its audience’s dwindling attention: At the beginning, Eulalie Hicks offers up a recap of the franchise thus far in what makes the early books’ “Harry Potter was a very unusual boy…” recaps look like the image of subtlety.)
This film switches genres from scene to scene with such abruptness as to give you whiplash. In some scenes, it’s a heist film – which could have been really cool, given Jo’s imagination and the richness of the world! At other times, the film is a political thriller – which would have been awesome had any of the politicians in said thriller been developed beyond “Grindelwald is bad.” There are times of family melodrama with the Dumbledores. And there are moments this is a fun family film. The film is not effective at displaying any of these genres.
With the failure of the last film, Warner Bros. brought in Steve Kloves (writer of all but one of the Harry Potter films) to help Jo with the screenwriting, and it shows. Kloves’s modus operandi in the Potter films was to portray some key moments from the Harry Potter books and rely on the lingering emotional reaction those moments elicit to paper over the complete lack of cohesive plot in the movies. Even without literary source material, that is exactly what is happening in Secrets of Dumbledore – a greatest hits montage of the Harry Potter books. “Choose between what is right and what is easy.” “Always.” “The room we require.” “Three points to Hufflepuff!” To say nothing of having an anachronistic Minerva McGonagall show up twice. It comes off as patronizing and desperate, and I’m relieved to see that Potter fans are no longer quite so willing to embrace such pandering.
Plenty of my criticism from my excoriation of Crimes of Grindelwald remains regrettably applicable to this latest film. Just as a quick rundown…
Crimes of Grindelwald wholly failed the Sexy Lamp Test, and Secrets of Dumbledore is hovering right around that line too. Bunty does important things for the plot but has absolutely zero development as a character. Eulalie Hicks is an absolute delight to have on-screen since she’s fun and energetic, but I’m hard-pressed to say how she is relevant to the plot. And the six or seven leading characters are all men; it’s just not a good look. (Also feeding into this – we are now on our third movie of angsting about Credence’s bloodline and parentage, yet the girl who was allegedly his mother does not even merit a name.)
Crimes of Grindelwald wholly ignored all the development of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Secrets of Dumbledore does the exact same thing to its predecessor. If we are supposed to be forgiving toward these films as they build a story, it would be helpful if they actually, you know, built on each other. But characters and story developments from Crimes of Grindelwald go totally unacknowledged. Remember how Leta Lestrange, whom both Scamander brothers were madly in love with, died tragically while telling one of them she loved him? They don’t; Leta merits one passing mention and zero emotional fallout in this film. In a similar vein, the allegiances of Credence and Queenie change with the weather, with almost zero explanation of why or how.
And considering this franchise began with a series emphasizing choices and free will, there is still so much melodramatic talk of destinies and prophecies and blood troths. (Ten points to anyone who can explain to me why the blood troth shattered when Dumbledore and Grindelwald dueled. Twenty points to anyone to explain why Warner Bros. didn’t lean into the melodrama and put an Evanescence song in the soundtrack.) Whether or not Credence is a Dumbledore or a Lestrange or a Potter or a Gaunt or a Snape, it should not matter nearly as much as it does.
The thing is, there are good moments in this film that make it an enjoyable adventure to go on if one can turn their brain off. There are some fun action set pieces of magical duels – though others take place in some kind of parallel dimension that just looks really dumb. Mads Mikkelsen captures Grindelwald’s evil charisma, giving the franchise a credible villain. Tina is mercifully absent from the film, thank Merlin! The scene of Newt’s manticore dance is genuinely funny, perhaps the only moment the audience was laughing with the film instead of at it. (That said, the whole manticore scene was disgusting – this is not the kind of wizarding world I yearn to be in!)
As to the titular secrets: The twist of Credence being Aberforth’s son is a genuinely good twist that reconciles what we know of the Dumbledores’ backstory with the “you’re a Dumbledore!” reveal. However, that twist shows that no one is even trying to build a consistent chronology in this world since it would make Credence about 28 years old in the first film when he’s still in an orphanage. But I’m at a loss as to what the other secrets are (there has to be at least one more, the title is plural!). My best theory for the other secret is that Dumbledore hates weddings, and that’s why he is angsting alone in the street at the end of the movie.
The frustrating part is that there are glimmers of potential that can be seen in the film. For example, it’s clear Jo employed her favored ring structure here since the film contains echoes of the first one that will presumably return in the fifth film (if one gets made): Newt dances for a fantastic beast, a mix-up of identical suitcases is crucial to the plot, and the film ends with Jacob and Queenie being romantic at his bakery. And the most promising scene in the film is one where we see Newt telling Dumbledore to be more forgiving of his past self – this could have been great character development. What if Dumbledore’s well-known tendency toward offering second chances was not always baked into his character but stemmed from a gentle Hufflepuff’s merciful nature during Dumbledore’s middle-aged years? That would be the kind of character arc that would allow these films to enrich the original books instead of alternately riffing on them and ignoring them as need be.
But alas, it’s not to be. The film franchise is clearly uninterested in deepening the lore or the characters of this world since it makes not even a feeble attempt to remain consistent with it. (For instance: In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the revelation that Dumbledore and Grindelwald once knew each other is a front-page-of-the-Daily-Prophet-level big deal. In Secrets of Dumbledore, Albus casually mentions, “Oh yeah, that’s from the summer I fell in love with Grindelwald…” as if every Tom, Dick, and Newt knows this.) I am sure that fans far more patient than myself will publish articles on MuggleNet trying to reconcile all of this, and I wish them “godspeed.”
When the lights went up in the theater for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, everyone immediately started theorizing. Was Ariana an Obcurial? Did Newt know she was? Was the Swooping Evil now master of the Elder Wand? There was excitement present, a faith that investing in this story would be rewarding.
When the credits rolled on Crimes of Grindelwald, there was booing in the theater. How could a film, let alone a film set in our beloved wizarding world, be that bad? Fans numbly contemplated whether it would even be worth continuing with the franchise – and judging by the muted crowds and low box office receipts, plenty of them chose to cut their losses.
But when Secrets of Dumbledore concluded, there was no excitement and no angst. There was just bemused laughter as someone prompted, “Um… what?” My friends and I talked all through the credits, asking questions about what on earth we’d just watched without any expectation of a sensible answer. That conversation lasted two more hours at a diner as we pored over the absurdity we’d just witnessed. That’s why I say I had a great time watching the film.
It remains to be seen if a mixture of curiosity and schadenfreude from audiences will provide enough financial incentive for Warner Bros. to conclude this franchise. I wrote in “In Jo We Do Not Trust” that Jo very clearly does not care about this series any longer. The franchise has prompted a deluge of media articles about how cursed it is after all the backstage drama the cast and creative team have been embroiled in. And most fans are responding to the franchise with either derision or indifference. I’m far more interested in the meta-story of whether Warner Bros. attempts to conclude this franchise than I am in the story of Dumbledore’s secrets and Grindelwald’s crimes.
So the final verdict: Even though this movie does not make any sense and is sorely lacking a plot, it’s at least entertaining to watch. Because of this, I can say that Secrets of Dumbledore is so much better than the last movie and is still a terrible film by any other standard.