movie reviews

‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ review: Sometimes magic is bewildering

Carljoe Javier

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‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ review: Sometimes magic is bewildering

Screenshot from trailer

'Seriously, wizards, why do you need a fantastic beast to tell you not to elect a fascist?'

Magic, in the real world practice of it anyway, is often about misdirection. The magician has you focused on one thing so you don’t see the other things that they are doing. Sometimes scripts and films work that way too, leading you down one direction to surprise you with where the story lands. There are moments when this approach works in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. But at least for my own taste, it felt more like as it sprawled and juggled characters and storylines, it lacked a sense of direction. 

This isn’t to say that people will not enjoy this movie. In fact I did witness during the screening I attended that a lot of people actually love this film. People laughed, cheered, gasped, and clearly enjoyed their experience revisiting JK Rowling’s Wizarding World. I’ve seen at least two comments or reviews say, “Third time’s a charm,” in reference to how this movie “works.” And so I am sure that this works for the audience that is invested in the stories of these characters, or in the expansion of the Potterverse. 

But I’ll have to admit to my own curmudgeonliness here. I enjoyed the series of movies enough (liking some, finding others utterly boring, and happy to rewatch a couple of the gems there). So that should limit how much fans should listen to me. In fact, if you’re a fan and can’t wait to get back into this world then you should probably just ignore me and go watch this movie. This review is more for people who aren’t sure if they should go out and see this. 

There are a number of things extraneous to the film as text, but inevitably connected to the movie’s release that viewers will have to contend with. JK Rowling’s longstanding opposition to trans rights has led many fans to sour on her as a creator. I couldn’t help but wrestle with the idea that she does quite well in writing the tensions of a gay couple, Dumbledore and Grindelwald, that underpin some of the conflict in this film. But extending her compassion to trans individuals continues to be a bridge too far for her. 

If you can get over Rowling’s issues, then there’s the messiness of the accusations against Johnny Depp, which cast a pall over the second installment of the series and is a reason behind the character, Grindelwald, being recast. Mads Mikkelsen steps into the role and brings in icy resolve and powerful menace to it. Every time he is in a scene you feel like there’s the threat of something terrible happening. 

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In fact, this movie is stacked with top actors giving great performances. For all that they must be dealing with green screens and reacting to things that will be added in post, the performances here are one reason to see the film. Perhaps there are times when it all takes itself too seriously, but that’s due to the storytelling more than the acting. 

And I suppose that’s where my quibbles with the film land, in the storytelling. Rowling, and her collaborators screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates, are ambitious in the scale and number of stories that they want to tell. But I couldn’t help but struggle with what felt like a lack of narrative focus. Perhaps one reason others might appreciate it and I might not is that it takes on an almost novel-like approach to things. It doesn’t flow like a film scene to scene, but rather as if we are being told one chapter, and then shifting gears to another character and going through that chapter. And then it all sort of attempts to assemble by the end. 

It opens quite strong, with Jude Law’s Dumbledore confronting Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald. Dumbledore has sworn a vow, owing to their relationship, that they would never fight each other. Which is a problem now because Grindelwald is basically Wizard-Hitler and he wants to subjugate the Muggles. So a few scenes later, we get Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander and a crew of wizards plus Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski as a crew that is out to stop Grindelwald. 

It’s at this point that I thought, oh awesome, team assembled, it’ll be some kind of heist mission thing with each of them using some kind of specialized skill. Instead, the movie kind of meanders. There are elements of a treasure hunt, rescues, and some action adventure things. But none of them seem to have real weight or consequences. The bigger picture is that Grindelwald has corrupted the whole magical electoral process. This is of course shocking, especially in our modern day context. However, the way it’s all confronted again seems to lack emotional heft. 

I will try to explain a little to illustrate perhaps how I failed to understand. So there’s an election for some big wizard position and technically, their version of Comelec should disqualify Grindelwald because…he is Wizard-Hitler, but instead it certifies his candidacy. And a bunch of wizards are totally supportive of his fascism. But the way that you win the elections is to be selected by a magical beast called a qilin, so to rig the elections Grindelwald needs to control one of those, and it’s on the team to find/protect one so that they can present the qilin who will elect someone true of heart (and not, like, a Nazi). Side note, seriously, wizards, why do you need a fantastic beast to tell you not to elect a fascist? Additional note, if it were only that easy in the real world to prevent the rise of a fascist, then things would definitely be better. 

So there’s a lot of plot stuff, and it seems to move things forward. But the plot events don’t connect powerfully enough to the heart of the matter, which is actually two important romances: Jacob and Queenie and Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Fogler is actually the movie’s MVP in emotional terms, as his moments with Queenie actually resonate and feel like the most real thing amid all the CG and magic. And Dumbledore and Grindelwald would’ve been served much better with more time as they moved their battle pieces around the board. 

There was just so much stuff going on. And sure, some of it looked cool. Some set pieces were funny and exciting. There’s enough here to be entertaining. But it does feel like a thing you can hit pause on, walk away from, and not feel like you’ve missed anything. I might agree with most people that this is where the series finds its footing. The question for viewers is, do you want to watch a third franchise movie where the creators are still figuring out how to tell a story? –

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore will be shown in Philippine theaters starting Black Saturday, April 16. 

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