Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
Mads Mikkelsen makes an insidious and sinister Gellert Grindelwald, but this perfunctory third 'Fantastic Beasts' film is hardly magical.
April 06, 2022
What a difference Mads Mikkelsen can make. What a difference the stellar Danish actor can't, too. The Another Round and Riders of Justice star enjoys his Wizarding World debut in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, taking over the part of evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald's Johnny Depp — who did the same from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them's Colin Farrell first, albeit in a scripted change — and he's impressively sinister and engagingly insidious in the role. He needs to be: his fascist character, aka the 1930s-set movie's magical version of Hitler, wants to eradicate muggles. He's also keen to grab power however he must to do so. But a compelling casting switch can't conjure up the winning wonder needed to power an almost two-and-a-half-hour film in a flailing franchise, even one that's really just accioing already-devoted Harry Potter fans into cinemas.
Capitalising upon Pottermania has always been the point of the Fantastic Beasts movies. Famously, this series-within-a-series springs not from a well-plotted novel, where the eight Boy Who Lived flicks originated, but from a guide book on magical creatures. That magizoology text is mentioned in the very first HP tome, then arrived IRL four years later, but it was only after the Harry Potter films ended that it leapt to screens. The reason: showing the Wizarding World's powers-that-be the galleons, because no popular saga can ever conclude when there's more cash to grab (see also: Star Wars and Game of Thrones). For Fantastic Beasts, the result was charming in the initial movie and dismal in its followup. Now, with The Secrets of Dumbledore, it's about as fun as being bitten by a toothy textbook.
Nearly four years have passed since The Crimes of Grindelwald hit cinemas, but its successor picks up its wand where that dull sequel left off. That means reuniting with young Albus Dumbledore, who was the best thing about the last feature thanks to Jude Law (The Third Day) following smoothly in Michael Gambon and Richard Harris' footsteps. Actually, it means reuniting Dumbledore with Grindelwald first. And, it involves overtly recognising that the pair were once lovers. The saga that's stemmed from JK Rowling's pen isn't historically known for being inclusive, much like the author's transphobic statements — and it's little wonder that getting candid about such a crucial romantic connection feels cursory and calculating here, rather than genuine. The same applies to The Secrets of Dumbledore's overall message of love and acceptance, which can only echo feebly when stemming from a co-screenwriter (alongside seven-time HP veteran Steve Kloves) who's basically become the series' off-screen Voldemort.
Referencing Dumbledore and Grindelwald's amorous past serves the narrative, of course, which is the real reason behind it — far more than taking any meaningful steps towards LGBTQIA+ representation. Years prior, the two pledged not to harm each other, binding that magical promise with blood, which precludes any fray between them now. Enter magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Trial of the Chicago 7) and his pals. Well, most of them. Newt's assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates, Call the Midwife), brother Theseus (Callum Turner, Emma), No-Maj mate Jacob (Dan Fogler, The Walking Dead), Hogwarts professor Lally (Jessica Williams, Love Life) and Leta Lestrange's brother Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam, Stillwater) are accounted for, while former friend Queenie (Alison Sudol, The Last Full Measure) has defected to Grindelwald. As for the latter's sister Tina (Katherine Waterston, The World to Come), she's spirited aside, conspicuously sitting Operation Avoid Muggle Genocide out.
Dumbledore's plan as the movie hops from New York and Hogwarts to Berlin and Bhutan: to stop Grindelwald via Newt and company, and also stop him seeing the future to rig an election. To put his new world order into effect, Grindelwald needs to become the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, but a fantastic beast just might foil his chances. The Secrets of Dumbledore is largely a grey-hued, grimly serious political thriller that frequently feels like it just happens to take place amid wand-waving folks (its nods to actual history are that blatant), but it occasionally remembers to include the critters mentioned in its moniker. That said, courtesy of a cute but mostly superfluous scene with Newt, Theseus and a hip-wiggling scorpion dance, it fares better at acknowledging mythical animals than spilling many Dumbledore secrets.
A villain swap, a half-hearted queer romance, past protagonists shunted off or playing second exploding tuba to fan favourites, a prequel series that doesn't recall what it was originally about, a title that's barely fulfilled: these aren't the ingredients for a great or even average movie, let alone an entrancing one. While some of the above occurs for sound reasons — Law swiftly outshining Redmayne in the last picture, for instance — The Secrets of Dumbledore is the filmic equivalent of throwing whatever's at hand into a cauldron and expecting a life-changing potion to bubble up. It's stitched together from shards of ideas, glimmers of possible good intentions and heavy sprinklings of nostalgia (quidditch and all), but the most it manages to be is perfunctory. Helming his seventh Wizarding World instalment, director David Yates retains a knack for setpieces at least — but even with plenty of chases and duels, and with his technical team doing much of the feature's heavy lifting, the visual wonders are still few and far between.
Two more Fantastic Beasts entries are currently slated; you don't need Grindelwald's sorcery to know HP won't leave screens anytime soon. But as The Secrets of Dumbledore demonstrates over and over, this saga struggles with purpose. That isn't surprising given that keeping the series going by any means necessary, and trying to keep everyone who grew up loving all things Potter in the late 90s/early 00s happy as well, remain its chief aims. Those kids are now adults, which is why the Fantastic Beasts movies focus on fully grown witches and wizards rather than Hogwarts students. Little else here has matured with them, though, or been fleshed out — despite obvious World War II parallels and nods to today's divided times playing key parts. Call it arrested franchise development, call it a floundering spell, call it an exercise in disenchantment: they all fit, and The Secrets of Dumbledore doesn't have the elixir, incantation or even ambition to magic up anything else.