The Potterverse goes through its death throws in this anaemic offering in a misguided franchise
Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Jude Law (Albus Dumbledore), Mads Mikkelsen (Gellert Gindelwald), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone/Aurelius Dumbledore), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), William Nadylam (Yusof Kama), Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander), Jessica Williams (Lally Hicks), Victoria Yeates (Bunty), Richard Coyle (Aberforth Dumbledore), Poppy Corby-Tuech (Vinda Rosier), Fiona Glascott (Minerva McGonagall), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein)
If the House of Potter teetered after the not-very-good Crimes of Grindelwald, it collapsed with the release of The Secrets of Dumbledore to waves of indifference. It’s proof that if you super-size your series not because you have a genuine story reason but because you think a fat goose will lay even more golden eggs than a thin one, you’ll eventually end up with a dead obese goose.
A year or something has passed and Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (now Mads Mikkelsen, thank God) continue circling, neither quite willing to end their ‘friendship’. Grindelwald is determined though to seize control of the Wizarding World by manipulating the election for the Supreme Leader to launch his anti-Muggle war. Dumbledore recruits a team, led by Newt (Eddie Redmayne), to stop him – but with Grindelwald’s new power to see the future, seized from a Fantastic Beast, Dumbledore can’t tell anyone his plan (plus ca change). Meanwhile Credence (Ezra Miller), is groomed by Grindelwald to destroy Hogwarts’ favourite professor.
The Secrets of Dumbledore may be flabby, over-extended and frequently meander down alleyways and byways that feel frustratingly pointless – but it is a better film than The Crimes of Grindelwald. Its problem is, it’s nowhere near good enough to win back the massive loss of audience faith that complete shit-show (combined with all sorts of social media storms) caused.
The Secrets of Dumbledore’s major positive is the arrival of Mikkelsen as Grindelwald. Replacing Johnny Depp (and his “personal problems”), he gives the film an automatic upgrade. If you want an arrogant, sinister, manipulative, but also dashing, romantic villain, why in God’s name wouldn’t you have cast Mikkelsen in the first place? The film is more daring on the Dumbledore and Grindelwald relationship than any other Potter film before – we even hear the “L” word.
Anything focused on these two – either together or alone – is invariably the good stuff. The two of them (Jude Law is equally good) semi-threatening, semi-reminiscing, semi-flirting in a café at the start is the finest scene, and the genuine regret between them is rather well done. Rowling also writes in, pretty much direct from the final book, the entire tragic Dumbledore-backstory reveal which the final Deathly Hallows film bizarrely cut (perhaps she thought it was as terrible an idea as I did?). Law plays this little moment to perfection.
You end up wishing the film was a more personal story between these two. Unfortunately, we get this over-inflated mess. The most bizarre thing about Secrets of Dumbledore is that simultaneously loads is going and the plot feels incredibly slight and mostly pointless. Frequently events bend down alleys or fizzle out into pointlessness. Far from being full of secrets, Dumbledore and his brother fall over themselves to share their secrets at every opportunity to keep the plot moving forward.
After the money-grabbing decision to squeeze as much cash out of this franchise (five movies!) as possible, The Secrets of Dumbledore feels like it has taken on a lot of padding to get up to length. Rowling, to put it frankly, isn’t that great at structuring a screenplay (it’s telling Steven Kloves was bought back to help bang this into shape). It’s a reminder it’s a very different set of skills telling a coherent story, full of twists, turns and universe building over 2 hours compared to 700 pages.
Grindelwald’s plan involves the complex and poorly explained, killing and resurrection of a magic goat. There is a lot of talk of “the people getting a say” in the election: an election where no one gets a say, since the leader of this civilisation is chosen on the whim of said magic goat. Our heroes go to the German Ministry of Magic solely, it seems, so Newt’s brother can be captured. A “spy” is planted among Grindelwald’s forces who does no spying, has parts of his memory wiped for no reason and then rejoins the heroes. Two characters communicate via a magic mirror, even though they’ve never met and couldn’t know who the other is. A labyrinthine plot about an assassination has so many hastily explained twists I genuinely have no idea what was going on. At regular intervals the heroes reconvene with Dumbledore, like players in a video game being given a brief for the next level.
Even more than the last one, the “Fantastic Beasts” idea feels like a burden. They’d have done better just starting a new “Dumbledore vs Grindelwald” franchise. The plot sort of revolves around a poorly explained magic animal. Theseus is whacked in a prison guarded by a deadly scorpion. In a bizarre tonal zig-zag, Newt distracts this beast’s scorpion-y minions by doing a funny dance – interrupted every so often by it grabbing a “political prisoner”, eating them alive and then spitting out the half-chewed corpse for its minions to consume. Remember when this felt like this series was going to be about the charming adventures of a naïve zoologist?
The legacy characters stumble through with little to do. Redmayne’s Newt is a character so bizarrely ill-conceived as the lead in a prelude-to-war series he’s often quietly relegated to side missions. Dan Fogler’s Jacob and Alison Sudol’s Queenie continue a nonsensical emotional journey (she, let’s not forget, defected to Grindelwald – the man who wants to destroy Muggles – because she wasn’t allowed to marry a Muggle). Katherine Waterston’s Tina is relegated to a cameo.
Then there’s Credence. This character, the central Macguffin of the last two films, is here relegated to the role of heavy whose long-hyped clash with Dumbledore is a little more than a dull one-sided scuffle. It’s hard not to think the character has been reduced to glorified extra due to the increasingly toxic public image of Ezra Miller (has there ever been a franchise more unlucky in its casting?). But the unceremonious dumping of this entire plotline so crucial to films one and two hammers home the feeling that there is no consistent planning going on here at all.
I said in Crimes of Grindelwald this franchise in need of a new creative eye. David Yates directs his seventh Potter film and, while he does nothing wrong, I don’t think he’s got a single new idea in the tank. The look and feel of this film, its visuals, the effects, its tone, its colour palette – all of it is now achingly familiar, making it feel even more like something tipped carelessly off a production line. It also looks shockingly over-processed: I know it’s about magic but by Merlin’s Beard nothing looks real. Does it feel magic to be back at Hogwarts? No, it looks like a freaking CGI nightmare.
The lack of freshness surely contributed to its death at the box-office. No one seems to have stopped and asked “would someone who hasn’t been working on Potter full time for over 12 years care about this?”. I don’t think they did. If you work the Golden Goose night and day, demanding it produces an egg a day, eventually it will keel over. It didn’t have to be like this, but there is more chance of Depp returning than anyone making the next two films in this misbegotten series.