Rekindling the Magic – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

When I first sat down to write about this film I had no intention of doing any kind of deep dive. However, after talking with someone who is a massive Harry Potter fan, it made me want to take an extended look and the entirety of the Fantastic Beasts franchise and how exactly it fits into the rest of the Wizarding World. Complete with all the familiar magical trappings of its predecessors, The Secrets of Dumbledore is an enjoyable enough big-screen experience but ultimately came across as disjointed, unfocused, and even at nearly 2 & 1/2 hours long it felt a bit shallow. 

Danny Ocean…sorry…Dumbledore assembles his crew

In the wake of the second film’s revelations, Dumbledore and Newt assemble a team to thwart the plans of the fugitive Grindelwald before he can launch his war on the Muggles. Meanwhile, Grindelwald has amassed popularity and assembled his own team with the intention of assassinating Dumbledore. 

My relationship with the “Wizarding World” is mostly an observational one. I have seen the Harry Potter films but am by no means a hardcore fan and I retained very little of those films outside the key plot points. It was only Mads Mikkelsen joining the fray that got me interested in the Fantastic Beasts branch of the universe. However, that detachment allowed me the opportunity to sit down and watch the first two of those films in succession, without any preconceived notions, before jumping into the third.

David Yates (middle) calling shots with his new star Mads Mikkelsen

What I enjoyed most about what director David Yates and J.K. Rowling did with the first film was that they established an identity outside of what we had seen in the eight Harry Potter films to that point, still within the Wizarding World. Actually, they expanded in a broader sense of magic’s place within the larger world itself. It was financially successful, grossing $814-million at the box office, but was only good enough to rank 8th of the nine films under the brand’s umbrella. It was pretty clear that the appetite for this particular fantasy world was still there in 2016 (5-years after the end of the original series and 6-years after Harry Potter World launched), but the general sentiment was that the film’s detachment from the previously established story and characters was somehow a negative.  

Jude Law in Dumbledore’s office at Hogwarts

So, moving into the second film, we are introduced to a young Dumbledore, we go back to Hogwarts, we learn more about Grindelwald and his history, several more new characters are introduced, and we ultimately learn that one of the characters introduced in Fantastic Beasts is actually part of the Dumbledore bloodline. So, by the end of The Crimes of Grindelwald, the core characters from FB1 had already begun to be diluted by additional new faces and the connective tissue directly to Harry Potter was firmly established. The third film pushes that narrative angle further and adds even more new characters. Unfortunately, that unique identity I mentioned from FB1 was sacrificed in the process of trying to appease the fans. While I think that was a mistake, the sentiment is far from universal. The Secrets of Dumbledore has the best Rotten Tomatoes audience score of the three Fantastic Beasts at 84% (probably) because of its return to a more familiar place within the Wizarding World.             

It’s completely understandable that fans of the original Harry Potter series would respond to this third film the most. You get more screen time from Dumbledore and Jude Law is a great fit for that role. He plays the character with grace and is the perfect antithesis to the brooding intensity of Mads Mikkelsen stepping into the role of Grindelwald. It’s a more menacing version of the character than we’d seen from Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell (kinda), distancing him from the sort of anti-hero realm that we saw in the second film. You also go back to Hogwarts on several occasions in the third film, including some glimpses of what looks like a Quidditch game, and there’s a cameo from the Golden Snitch. Of all the Fantastic Beasts films, this was was decidedly the most “Harry Potter” of the bunch.  

It’s a little blurry

However, Harry’s story is over…at least in the sense that the original story arc is done. No matter how much you try to rekindle that flame it isn’t going to happen, especially through prequels. The best you could hope for is the mining of nostalgia. While people love nostalgia, myself included, there’s only so far that can take you. Additionally, pulling away from what made FB1 unique, you move into derivative territory with pretty firm limitations in a hurry and you also cut the legs off the only original part of the franchise in 20-years. So, not only can you never quite make the real hardcores happy, but you also risk alienating the audience that may have actually liked the alternative that was offered by the new series. 

This core group isn’t the focal point any longer

Whether you like them or not, this started as Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and Tina’s story and that has unraveled quickly. Looking back on FB1, that film thrives and finds itself in the process of watching Jacob have his mind consistently blown as he is exposed to more and more wizardry (Dan Fogler is excellent, by the way. The true heart and the clear emotional compass of the series). He develops a genuine friendship with Eddie Redmayne’s Newt, who is clearly an outcast of sorts from the magical community. They are both outcasts from their respective worlds and that’s why their character dynamic works. It’s the same kind of foundational friendship that anchors the Harry Potter series, they just aren’t children this time. Jacob even gets into a romantic relationship and falls in love with Queenie, the witch played marvelously by Alison Sudol, and the two of them are great together across all three films. I would argue that Jacob is the on-screen embodiment of the fan experience! So, it’s a little strange to hear that this branch of the franchise somehow failed to establish an emotional connection.

It’s very easy to cheer for Newt and Jacob because Redmayne and Fogler work so well together

Personally, I enjoyed that character dynamic quite a lot and it hits pretty squarely when he’s faced with being obliviated at the end of FB1. Even when he shows up in FB2, his love life is in jeopardy and the moment when Queenie chooses to side with Grindelwald is pretty rough once again. Of all the characters, in all the films, who is more relatable than Jacob?

The flirtation between Newt and Tina was always pitchy and, by the second film, there was already too much extra junk in the gears between them, with the addition of Newt’s former crush and his brother. Regardless, by FB3 they’re all relegated to almost supporting roles in their own franchise as the film tacks on even more new characters (and Katherine Waterston’s Tina is basically not in the film at all except for some superficial cameos). Hell, Newt’s not even front-and-center on the poster anymore as he was for the first two movies. No matter how you slice it, it just isn’t their series anymore and that’s a problem.

Now, I never developed a deeply seeded bond with the original Harry Potter cast but, over the course of eight films across 15-years, you’re bound to form some kind of attachment. Naturally, trying to establish an emotional connection with any new characters in the Wizarding World was always going to be an uphill battle. So, it’s not fair or accurate to compare the two in a straight line. From where I stand, I don’t see a franchise whose characters have failed their audience but rather a franchise that has failed to stand up for its characters, and the ripple effect of that decision.

A small part of Harry Potter World

All characters aside, one thing that has always stood out to me was that fans loved the Wizarding World itself. It’s similar to how Star Wars fans love the mythology and fiction of the larger universe beyond the films. I mean, kids and adults alike dress up adorning particular emblems and claim affiliation to one house or another, Quidditch leagues have formed, and (at least) two different theme parks have built replicas of some of the sets as a testament to the love of that idea. While you’re there, they’ll sell you Butterbeer, custom wands, and all kinds of other paraphernalia and then have the Sorting Hat tell you which house you belong to. None of that is about the specific characters, but it does conjure up a deeply rooted connection to the spirit of that world. 

Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the other characters aren’t running around Harry Potter land…not in my limited experience at least…in the way that Mickey Mouse and the Disney Princesses are at Disneyland. Keep in mind I have only been to Diagon Alley on a couple of occasions, so I could be wrong, but at no point did I ever see an employee in costume, role-playing as one of the characters. Yet I can’t go five feet in the rest of Universal without seeing some creepy dude in a Shrek suit. That’s because, despite Harry’s name being the brand, he isn’t the Wizarding World and the theme parks are selling the fans the experience of getting to be themselves within that space. Ironically enough, that feeling of awe and amazement in response to the magical world, is the core of the character dynamic in FB1.

My point is, keeping all of that in mind, it’s not the Fantastic Beasts characters that have been the problem. Looking closely, it’s hard to argue that there even was a problem after FB1. Still, even as a casual observer, I could see that the distance from the original Harry Potter franchise was being misconstrued as a negative. The part of the fan base that wanted to turn back in that direction made their feelings known and the studio and the filmmakers responded in kind. As I stated earlier, that was a creative mistake but if you were a believer in moving back towards the HP side of the coin, you’d expect to see the benefits of that decision. However, as it often does, the audience-pandering backfired. The box office results along with public and critical responses all back that up and I made some fancy visual aids to help me out.

Despite being the furthest from the original series, FB1 has the strongest scores among critics and audiences (as of 4/29/22)
The box-office door isn’t closed on Secrets of Dumbledore‘s just yet, its opening was down 32% from the previous film and the trajectory is unlikely to improve (as of 4/29/22)

All of the biggest ideas presented over the three films are, more or less, neatly tied and, despite increasingly moving back towards the original franchise over the course of the second and third Fantastic Beasts films, the approach hasn’t had the intended effect. As you can see, the trend lines are actually moving in the opposite direction, and Secrets of Dumbledore is on pace to be the lowest-grossing film in the Wizarding World.

This third film was decidedly more political than anything else I have seen in the Wizarding World as well. There were glimpses of it in the first two as Newt deals with the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Magic in New York. There’s some of that in FB2, but the pendulum swings back hard in Secrets of Dumbledore and it’s not too hard to read between the lines and see who Grindelwald is being compared to. It’s one thing to delve into the politics of the fictional world but it seemed like it was designed with the intent of drawing that comparison and little else.

Mads Mikkelsen is an excellent Grindelwald and I look forward to seeing more of him

Even as an admitted outsider, a Muggle if you will, I can see why Harry Potter fans would respond to this latest installment more positively than the previous two. It is a decided improvement over the second installment and it pulls back on the main Fantastic Beasts characters if they weren’t your cup of tea. It also positions the series to be potentially more Hogwarts-based moving forward, but it has also sent the series into a dangerous realm of pandering.

After sitting down with all three films in the Fantastic Beasts series within the same week, I can say with confidence that the first one was the best of the three, and Secrets of Dumbledore was better than Crimes of Grindlewald. The floor is always fairly high for these films because the production quality is never going to fall below a certain level, so it’s not a massive gap. There is ultimately a lot going on in Dumbledore and, as a result, the story can’t get too deep in any particular area. That leaves it feeling a little shallow, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun.

Recommendation: See it for its place in the larger Wizarding World and a more Harry Potter-centric approach and, perhaps more importantly, because it may be the end of the line for the characters you may like from Fantastic Beasts.

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