With the success of the Harry Potter series both on the page and on the screen, you could imagine a whole wealth of new stories that could be potentially spun off from the main narrative and stand well enough on it’s own. And that indeed is what creator and author J.K. Rowling thought as well, and actively pursued in the wake of the final Potter film. Working with producers Hayman Productions and Warner Brothers Pictures, the team behind the Potter series, she developed a new brand that would be an all encompassing home for all the universe building projects that would be coming from her post Potter period. This brand would be known as the Wizarding World, and it would include everything from movies, to books, to video games, and even social media; all connected to the same universe. The Wizarding World would be an ambitious undertaking that all parties involved were hoping would prosper for well into the future; doing for the Wizarding World what George Lucas had built with Star Wars. To launch this ambitious plan, a new series of movies were announced. Based loosely on a encyclopedic style book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an appendices that Ms. Rowling released separately where she went into greater detail about the magical creatures found in her stories, the new movie series would be a whole new narrative focused on new characters, but still connected with the history that we were all familiar with in the Potter series. In addition to taking a more active role in producing the films as well, Rowling also made her debut as a screenwriter, having only been a novelist up to that point. Leading up to it’s debut, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) was wildly anticipated by fans and also industry insiders who were interested to see how well a new Rowling film series would do without the famous boy wizard at it’s center. But, as we would learn, best laid plans don’t always pan out.
Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them grossed a respectable, but not earth-shattering amount at the box office. It was certainly under what the Harry Potter movies made, and though some saw it as disappointing in comparison, others thought it had a strong start for a new franchise. However a lot of other world events began to shroud the series as it headed into production on it’s second film; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018). First and foremost J.K. Rowling began to publicly declare he beliefs that many people (I’d say rightly) claimed were transphobic. This very controversial stand by Rowling alienated herself from many people who were among the millions of fans of her work, and her words against the trans community brought about a lot of condemnation, including from Harry Potter himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe. This led to many fans being turned off by the series, not wanting to support Rowling’s empire with their own money, which they believe would just encourage her controversial opinions even more without facing any repercussions. Secondly, Rowling’s choice to play the villainous Gellart Grindelwald, the series central antagonist, was Johnny Depp who at the time of the film’s production was in the middle of a very messy divorce from ex-wife, Amber Heard. Surrounding the news of Depp’s divorce was also accusations from Heard that he was physically abusive. This suddenly turned public opinion against Depp in the eyes of many and the one time A-list star suddenly became un-hirable in Hollywood. Even Warner Brothers decided to keep their distance, and Depp was fired soon after Grindelwald’s release. And now, with the third film in the series coming out, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022), another star of the film, Ezra Miller, has been arrested for assault and for threatening to kill a couple in Hawaii whose house he was staying at. Suffice to say, the Fantastic Beasts franchise has taken on a lot of negative baggage along the way as it’s pressed forward. And yet, there are still fans eager to see the third chapter in this Fantastic Beasts series. The only question is, can The Secrets of Dumbledore able to recapture the magic of past Potter glory, or is it again succumbing to a curse from both external and internal factors.
The film picks up not long after the events of The Crimes of Grindelwald. The dark wizard Gellart Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) is plotting something in the shadows, gaining support from many in the wizard world for his extreme views of magical superiority. Up against his world vision is Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), a professor at the Hogawarts School of Witchcraft who is know to many to be the one and only wizard powerful enough to go up against Grindelwald. However, neither Grindelwald nor Dumbledore can take up arms (or wands) against each other, due to a blood pact they made together when they were young lovers. In order to stop Grindelwald’s rise in power from happening, Dumbledore enlists the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former student of his and a resourceful zoologist of magical creatures. Helping Newt along are his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), his assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), a premiant French wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), an American witch named Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) and a muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who has been a friend and ally of Newt’s in the past. Together, they take part in a multi-faceted plan to undermine Grindelwald’s subversion of an upcoming election for the High Council of Wizards (sort of like the Wizarding World’s United Nations). Meanwhile, Grindelwald is embarking on his own schemes, with the help of Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a mind-reading witch who was once in love with muggle Jacob Kowalski, and a young wizard named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who has been discovered to be a blood relation of Dumbledore. At the heart of the mission for both sides is a mythical creature known to the whole wizarding world for it’s ability to recognize the purest souls, something that is important in determining the future leaders of their community. Of course Newt, with his knowledge of magical creatures, is central to the creature’s well-being, and the fate of the wizarding world depends on if he is able to keep Grindelwald from using the creature for his evil ends.
In anticipation of the release of this film, I went back and re-watched the first two Fantastic Beasts movies as a refresher. Controversies aside, I wanted to find out how well these two movies stand up, and one bad sign already is that I remembered very little about these movies since I first saw them. Upon re-watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I realized that it was a flawed but not at all bad of a movie. It works pretty well as a stand alone feature that in many ways fulfills the promise of what the Wizarding World is setting out to do, showing us more of the world itself. I liked that it showed us how the Wizarding World worked in America, with it’s own set of rules and special words and spells different from the British side that we’ve thus far. If it lacked anything, it’s that it lacks the balance of whimsy and peril that the Harry Potter movies were so renowned for. Unfortunately all the problems found in the first Fantastic Beasts were magnified even more in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Crimes is just an incoherent mess, devoid of any meaningful entertainment and is just a collection of plot threads that feel more like an outline than a narrative. Considering that J.K. Rowling’s plan is to make this a five film series, Crimes of Grindelwald felt very much like filler with no meaningful momentum to justify it’s existence. It’s a movie that clearly demonstrates why some novelist should not adapt their own work into screenplays. Rowling works best when she can work out her plots in full chapters, and not show the strain of telling too much story in a 2 hour time frame. So, the extensive problems of Crimes of Grindelwald made me wary of what a third film in this series might bring. Thankfully, Secrets of Dumbledore is an improvement over it’s predecessor, but at the same time, it’s a movie that still can’t overcome the flaws of the series in general. I have yet to get a clear reason as to why this story is a worthy successor to the Potter series. Each Potter story to various degrees works as a harrowing stand-alone adventure with a connecting narrative sown throughout. With Fantastic Beasts, it seems that Rowling wants to make each movie essential viewing to understand the plot of the series as a whole, and that causes each film to lack an identity separate from each other.
There is one thing that I noticed as being a major issue with the series as a whole thus far, and that’s the Newt Problem. Newt Scamamder is the main protagonist of this franchise, and yet J.K. Rowling does very little to make him an essential part of the narrative. In the Potter series, Harry was key to every aspect of the story, as it became a coming of age tale mixed in with this battle of good against the forces of evil. In Fantastic Beasts, Newt is not at all important. He certainly has a presence, but his factor in the plot is far more passive than what Harry was in his. Newt left much more of an impression in the first Fantastic Beasts, because that movie’s plot was tailored around his expertise. It was an easy to follow fetch quest across New York City in the 1920’s, where we saw all of Newt’s know-how come into play as he helped to tame and corral all the Fantastic Beasts loose in the city. But it feels like starting with Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling became less interested in her own main character and began to delve more into the secondary characters; particularly with the characters of Grindelwald and Dumbledore. That continues on in Secrets of Dumbledore, where it almost feels like Newt is an afterthought in the story. He even spends most of the climax of this film just standing around and watching what’s happening. How are we supposed to care about this franchise when the main character is just a passive bystander. Had Newt just been a one-off character and the remainder of the series was more anthology based around different main characters, it might make more sense, but as it stands, it just shows Rowling’s shortcomings as a screenwriter where she places more emphasis on plot than meaningful character development. At least with The Secrets of Dumbledore we actually have a plot that makes more sense and is easy to follow, as opposed to the mishmash that was Crimes of Grindelwald. I think one thing that helped here was that this film brought on a co-writer for the screenplay; that being Steven Kloves, the writer of seven of the eight Potter films. I get the feeling that Kloves was brought in by Warner Brothers to sort of reign in Ms. Rowling and find a coherent, human thread in the middle of her larger plot ambitions.
Another major problem with the series is that even with the new characters and the period setting, it can’t escape the shadow of the Potter franchise. What was so distinctive about the Potter franchise was the way that it evolved over time. It began as this warm, colorful adventure that was endearing to audiences of all ages, but as the series went along, it became darker and more serious in tone, and it did so in an organic way. I feel like one of the things that really helped that transformation along was the variety of directors that they had involved. Chris Columbus successfully laid the foundation of this fantastic, magical world; Alfonso Cuaron gave it artistic panache; Mike Newall broadened it’s epic scope; and David Yates carried it to the end with an assured sense of importance. Fantastic Beasts is a series that even three films in still can’t decide on the tone it wants to have. David Yates, who directed the final half of the Potter series over it’s last 4 films, has continued on directing all the Fantastic Beasts movies so far. And he has likewise continued to direct the movies the same way that he did with his Potter films. Unfortunately, here, he doesn’t have the foundation of a magical world set up in previous films. Secrets of Dumbledore just feels very dour and gloomy, with a gray-scale color scheme that lacks any visual appeal whatsoever. If there was any movie that deserved to break the mold and start looking more imaginative, this was the one, but instead, we get probably the ugliest looking movie in the series yet. Remember the warm color palette of the first couple Potter films. That’s been replaced with muted tones that make the film feel like a dirge, even when it’s trying too hard to lighten up. There’s only one scene in the entire movie that feels vaguely in line with what we remember from the Potter films, and it’s when Newt tries to help his brother escape imprisonment in a chamber full of scorpion like creatures. In this scene, Newt manages to charm the scorpions by wiggling around in a dance similar to the way they walk. In that moment, we see the movie finally find a balance between the perilous and the whimsical, and it is sadly all too fleeting. That’s generally where Fantastic Beasts has faltered thus far as a series. It’s too dark and serious for children to enjoy, and too whimsically inclined to appeal to serious adults at the same time. That lack of a clear identity has been it’s biggest problem and Secrets of Dumbledore amplifies that problem once again.
If there is one thing can still be admired about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it’s that the cast is giving it their all, even when the script lets them down. While Newt Scamander is a very lackluster protagonist overall, you still have to appreciate Eddie Redmayne’s commitment to the character and all his eccentricities. Like the aforementioned scene with the scorpions, he tackles the sillier stuff in this movie with the same effort that he does with the more serious elements. If he were just sleepwalking through the role, it would’ve probably made this movie nearly unwatchable, so the fact that he gives it his all is appreciated. Also appreciated is the return of Dan Fogler as Jakob Kowalski, who has honestly been the MVP of the Fantastic Beasts movies so far. He’s the only character that has that right balance of humor and sincerity, which would’ve made him feel at home in the Potter franchise, and he’s far and away the highlight of this movie. Had he been the main character instead of Newt, this franchise might have had some better success with it’s balance of tone. But, apart from him, the movie’s other highlight is Jude Law as young Dumbledore. It’s a daunting task having to fill the shoes of a role that has been played by acting legends Richard Harris and Michael Gambon, but Jude surprisingly has managed to bring his own bit of gravitas to the role. You see a lot of glimmer of past Dumbledore’s in his performance, but you also get the energy of a younger man in his prime still working out his own place in the world. They also do an interesting dissection into Albus’ estranged relationship with his brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), which has been hinted at in past Potter films, but is given more exploration here. And one definite improvement over Crime of Grindelwald is the re-casting of Grindelwald himself. Johnny Depp, in retrospect, was not an ideal choice for the character, as Depp only brought his oddball schtick to the character with no real menace. Mads Mikkelsen on the other hand (who honestly should’ve been playing this character from the beginning) is far more intimidating in the role, and you really feel more of a darker presence with him in the part. Unfortunately, Grindelwald still remains a rather underwhelming villain script wise, but with Mikkelsen finally in the role, he at least no longer comes across as a cartoonish villain, but instead a force to be reckoned with.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore rights the ship a little bit, but not nearly enough to actually salvage the series mired reputation. It’s sad that the drama outside of the series itself, with so many scandals erupting all around it, has overshadowed the series so far. Some of it is definitely self-inflicted wounds, with J.K. Rowling perhaps being too unaware of her own mistakes in the making of this series and resting too much on her past laurels to actually challenge herself as an artist. Controversy about her opinions aside, which is it’s own problem, she really needs to understand that there are aspects of telling a story that are better left to other people who can bring new energy into this world she imagined. That’s what worked for George Lucas and Star Wars. Hell, it even worked on the Harry Potter movies, where different directors helped to make each film have it’s own unique voice. Fantastic Beasts thus far has felt like an ego trip for J.K. Rowling, seeing just how far she can go with telling the story her own way without loosing the audience. The Secrets of Dumbledore is going to be a test to see if the audience has reached it’s limit and have moved on from Rowling’s Wizarding World. As of right now, Warner Brothers is putting the series on hold until they see how Secrets performs at the box office. This could spell the premature end of the series, or it could force Warner Brothers to steal away more control of the series away from Rowling. The fact that The Secrets of Dumbledore is only incrementally better than it’s predecessor and not a massive course correction leaves me to believe that it’s rough waters ahead. Perhaps Rowling needs to be humbled a bit, because no one can doubt her creativity; it’s just that she’s in a way become her own worst enemy. The Wizarding World is a valuable brand, but it’s one that’s growing increasingly stale because of the fact that it is no longer inspiring it’s audiences like it has before. Now, only the die hard fans are sticking by it, and it’s increasingly becoming an obligation more than an event. If Warner Brothers does move ahead with more, let’s hope Rowling reconsiders the possibilities with this franchise and allows for more diversity of input into the Fantastic Beasts series. Like the menagerie of Beast’s living in Newt’s enchanted trunk, a more gentler touch is better at taming a beast than a iron clad grip, and what J.K. Rowling needs to do with her Wizarding World is to find a way to let it find it’s own way than force her own self interest onto it. Great writers always lets the story speak to them and guide their way through, and my hope is that Rowling discovers that it might be better to not let her own flaws spill into so much of the things that she clearly has a love of sharing with the rest of the world.