‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore’ Review: Come For Jude Law, Magical Creatures, And Political Subtext. Leave Because It’s All So Badly Written
Hey, you guys remember the Polyjuice Potion? A crucial ingredient in it is the essence of the person you want to transform into. But here’s the thing—taking the potion makes you look like them, but your insides, even your voice, remain your own. And if you’re not a very nice person, well then, what good is looking like one going to do for you? The Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them franchise reminds me so much of this. For it takes the essence of something that I so dearly, maddeningly, and loyally love, the Harry Potter series, and pretends to be it. But fails. And it would’ve been okay, except, J.K. Rowling decided to do the failing in a five-film long franchise. And Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore is only the midway point. And it works, as much as it does, because the film looks decent, has cameos from cute magical creatures, and the cast, which includes Eddie Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander, Jude Law as Hogwarts teacher Albus Dumbledore, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Mads Mikkelsen as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, and more, brought their H game to work (Hermione game, duh).
Also in the cast are William Nadylam, Victoria Yeates, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Fiona Glascott, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Oliver Masucci, Dave Wong, and Richard Coyle, with Katherine Waterston reprising her role as Tina Goldstein. The Secrets Of Dumbledore is directed by David Yates, with a screenplay by J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves, cinematography by George Richmond, and editing by Mark Day. The score is by James Newton Howard.
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To quickly tell you about the film’s synopsis (spoiler alert: it’s not quick), we have the first edition of Dumbledore’s Army (not an official name, but I like to think it is a nice touch), one that he sets up to thwart his former boo, Grindelwald’s plans for establishing a new world order. Now Gellert isn’t your run-of-the-mill Dark Lord with blind ambition and rage or no nose. He’s a strategist. In the wake of the First World War, a Muggle war that even wizards joined to fight in, he wants to gain control of the International Confederation of Wizards (based out of Germany for some reason?) so he can wage a war against Muggles, subjugate them, and stop them from destroying the world any further. And to do this, dude must win some election which is happening in… wait for it… Bhutan! And the good professor Dumbledore, whose first name, Albus, literally means ‘white’, BTW, is the light that will stop this dark. We know this from his Chocolate Frog Card, of course.
There’s just one little problem. These two loverboys, when they were young, made a blood pact to not fight each other. And that’s a serious spell, like the Unbreakable Vow. But considering it is Rowling, and she writes the rules of this magical world like Rita Skeeter writes her articles, we shall find a way to circumvent the unbreakable and undoable. Some concoction of Priori Incantatem, blood magic, with a sprinkling of the most powerful magic— love—should do the trick. Sigh. I am really tired of Rowling retro-fitting history into the HP canon, but what makes this disappointment worse is that she’s so bad at it. I’ve read better fan fiction on Wattpad, and I don’t read Wattled. The writing is so lazy, SO LAZY, that the only answer to why an otherwise impossible thing was suddenly made possible is — “He cast to kill and I cast to protect, so yay, we win.” Pfft!
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore borrows several elements from the HP canon, none more important and frustrating than the hero of the story being lied to by Dumbledore because the man likes his secrets as much as he likes sherbet lemon. Ah, the frustration you feel with Dumbledore’s character like Harry did in Deathly Hallows! Nobody knows the full plan. In Harry Potter, these flaws in character are better etched out and are the follies of a tired old man who has headlined three wars in his lifetime, alone, just winging it as he goes. But sadly, Fantastic Beasts’ attempts at being unpredictable or some grand scheme being revealed in the end are so laughable, that you’re surprised the same person that wrote the beloved original books, wrote this. Then again, critics will tell you, that was always Rowling’s style. Inventing easy loopholes to solve the unsolvable conundrums.
Sure, the essence of HP canon shines through on occasion. Remember when Dumbledore told Hogwarts students that a time will come when we must choose between what is right and what is easy? There’s a nice callback to that in this film. Even the scene where Dumbledore uses a band of misfits as decoys to confuse a foresighted Grindelwald and his minions clearly borrow from The Seven Potters plan from Deathly Hallows. And every time the turrets of Hogwarts pop up, the Harry Potter theme plays, a beloved (debatable) book makes an appearance, or you hear familiar last names like Carrow, Lestrange, or even Goldstein, the nostalgia kicks in like you’ve just been fed love potion and made to go googly-eyed over the film. But that’s never been enough for me to endure these three films, forget two more, especially when it could’ve ended with this third one.
Why? For starters, the rushed narrative nearly destroys the storytelling here. There’s absolutely no link between the scenes! Things just happen, and we Disapparate and Apparate into scenes with different characters as if this were a TV show. And you’re supposed to get with the program, without any clear explanation for why something happened or why a particular spell worked the way it did. Why do we need Jacob Kowalski, a Muggle, to fight this dangerous war, where he could die before in a flash of green light from nowhere? He absolutely had no use here! Why is the International Confederation of Wizards doing elections for the Supreme Mugwump in Germany? Wait, do even most people watching the film even know what the Int. Confederation of Wizards is! It took me a while to realise that the dude who plays Ulrich in Netflix’s Dark, Oliver Masucci, is some wizarding world leader, and not just the German Minister of Magic, let alone the Supreme Mugwump. And, pray, tell me, what is this alternate dimension that Dumbledore takes people into with a click of his Deluminator (?) where he fights with them? I feel like I need Hermione here to help me with my homework!
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Once again, knowing the contents of Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card was what resulted in the epiphany about the political hodgepodge we were just dropped into, during the climax of the film. It made me wonder, how many of these seemingly clever nods and details was I missing because of this badly written plot? Why is the final round of this election in Bhutan, of all places, and how did Bhutan come to have this connection with the source of all magic in the wizarding world? What, in Merlin’s name, is a qilin and why, if it is so important, was it never mentioned by Hagrid or anyone in the original story?
I get it, JKR, you created this world and can play God with it however you like, but at least offer some justifiable explanations for these canon changes? We’re already getting whiplash from the changing Grindelwalds (we’ve had three so far, I think the role is cursed like the position of the DADA teacher was at Hogwarts), we can’t take it no more! I can feel Hermione rolling her eyes like she would at the flamboyant musings of Professor Trelawney in Prisoner Of Azkaban (Best HP movie ever and a better film to indict in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, amirite?)
The characters—and OMG there are so many characters whose names I cannot and do not care to remember—are one minute in London, another in Berlin, and yet another in Nurmengard, the HQ of Grindelwald (and eventually his prison), without so much as an explanation of what the big picture is. Now this is coming from a person who is obsessed with Harry Potter and remembers Harry’s entire batch by name. But because there’s no depth to these characters, and no time spent on actually getting to know them, you do not care for their fates. What sucks is that you want to know more about them so badly. Yusuf Kama, the poor guy, has barely any dialogues. Grindelwald has a female sidekick, I guess his very own Bellatrix minus the chaotic evil energy of Helena Bonham Carter, who just smiles wickedly at the good guys. And there’s a male version of her too. But I mean, Credence, Aberforth, Theseus… these characters deserve more!
My man Newt is dealt the shortest end of the wand here. This franchise could’ve just been about his adventures in the forest of the world as he discovered these fascinating creatures and the contents of his charm-modified suitcase. Instead, our hero is ever so often sidelined. In fact, if you, like me, have been wondering why we continue this charade of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ in the title despite this becoming a story about Grindelwald’s defeat, the opening sequence should pacify you momentarily. It’s a beautiful scene involving a magical creature called the Qilin (pronounced as chillin’) that the villain wants, and so does Dumbledore, who sends his trusted friend Newt Scamander to retrieve it. It’s a scene that looks spectacular and appeals to the young teenager who fell in love with this world. In fact, the scenes involving the magical creatures and Redmayne’s Newt Scamander interacting with new creatures, or the returning old ones like Mr. Pick and Teddy, the ADORABLE Niffler, remain the beating heart of this franchise and do justice to the title. Everything else, I am sorry, is marred by bad writing.
But now here’s the tricky part. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore, in true Rowling style, has a subtext that is particularly relevant to our times. You see, Grindelwald is a bigot who has managed to convince some very powerful people to support his election, rigged it too, and amassed followers he has indoctrinated into believing his new world order that says one type of people are more superior than the other. At one point, he is even absolved of his genocidal crimes against Muggles. Sound familiar? And standing against him is Dumbledore, the righteous leader who once very much supported this ideology but is now fighting it, and the man he loves.
To quote Ollivander, the wandmaker, this makes one curious, very curious about where this story’s potential. But what do we expect when Rowling is channelling the writers of our Indian sass-bahu shows, and pulling randomly concocted histories, clandestine affairs, and wizarding traditions out of the bag?
That being said, I thought Secrets Of Dumbledore did a much better job than its predecessor, The Crimes Of Grindelwald, which was criminally complicated and a film I almost completely forgot. I had to visit the Pensieve and retrieve my memories of it. I was reminded that it was the revelation of Credence Barebone being a Dumbledore that made me suppress it all in the first place. (Note: It gets worse.) I guess the charm of Jude Law as young Dumbledore and the humour brought in by Dan Fogler makes this third instalment, which reportedly happens a while after the events of the second film, bearable. And of course, the scenes between Eddie Redmayne, who plays the quirky nerd part so well, and all the fantastic beasts. The Erkstag sequence is entertaining!
As for our new Grindelwald, Mads Mikkelsen’s business-like portrayal of the dark wizard is fine, and I love the actor, but one does wonder what quirks its previous actor would’ve imbued the character with. And finally, amongst its cast list of cancelled actors, Ezra Miller plays emo boy Credence like it’s a joke and he is humouring us by playing along.
The names behind the scenes, as any HP fan worth their salt can tell you, are of people who’ve been associated with the Wizarding World for long now—Yates, Kloves, and of course, Rowling herself. They have taken the very DNA of the HP films and tried to recreate a world that is both reminiscent of the one we know and love, and yet different, for the events happened more than half a century before The Boy Who Lived’s story does. And yet, the incredibly sloppy writing, unimaginative narrative, and unexplained loopholes plugged by ex machina devices fail to conjure any charm and affection for this franchise.
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Legend has it, that a woman once had the idea of a boy wizard’s story on a train from Manchester to King’s Cross, London. And by the time she alighted at her station, J.K. Rowling had written a basic plot for the first book that would go on to be one of the biggest phenomena of our times. When I look at the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them film franchise, spawned from a 128-page guide book that Rowling wrote for Comic Relief (a British charity), I think the scripts of the three films were written every day on the train, on the way to shooting the films, on the very day the scenes were to be shot.
And unlike the OG Harry Potter series, Rowling clearly did not take time and effort to flesh things out and mind her ps and qs. Because the franchise is incoherent and relies too much on magical solutions to all its conflicts. And because, ironically, this film inspired by a guidebook now needs a guidebook to keep up with. So devoid of charm and magic it has now become that it would suck like Merlin’s baggy Y fronts to allow it to go on for two more films. Please Finite Incantatem this franchise, for the greater good.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore is currently in theatres.