Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a film that’s outrageously entertaining to hardcore Harry Potter fans but a confusing mess to the rest of us.
The Secrets of Dumbledore has all the trademarks that are expected of a Wizarding World film. There are moments of heart, moments of slapstick, and moments of complete dread. The most memorable of these is when Newt (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) imitate a group of crabs to get out of a dungeon. However, even this moment is confusing in tone as a monster from the depths of a pit would intermittently throw up the gooey remnants of a human it just devoured. The juxtaposition of slapstick comedy and gruesome death doesn’t sit quite well and symbolises the fall the Wizarding World franchise has taken since the conclusion of the Harry Potter (2001-11) series.
If a Potter fan were to go into the movie, they would be pleased. The characters of Newt and Dumbledore (Jude Law) carry the old feeling of the Potter franchise beautifully through the film as Newt feels like the fish out of water that Harry Potter was, and Dumbledore is still Dumbledore, speaking in riddles with a heavy burden upon him. We even get a peek into the backstory of what makes Dumbledore the man we see interacting with Harry in his later life. Dan Fogler’s portrayal of Jacob Kowalski is delightfully bumbling and brings levity to every moment he’s in, and Mads Mikkelsen is menacing as the evil Gellert Grindlewald.
So all the ingredients are there for a great story, yet the film leaves you feeling empty when the credits roll. Why?
What’s missing is a basic understanding of filmic structure and the care it takes to ensure an audience is following along at every turn of the film. Fantastic Beasts author J.K. Rowling, it seems, tried to take the route of leaving the audience in the dark to build suspense, but in this instance, it leaves you feeling lost instead of intrigued. This starts from the beginning of the film. After a quick backstory moment, we’re thrust into the Newt storyline as he finds a mythical creature that has some importance. However, we don’t know what that is until the very end of the film.
What’s most frustrating is that The Secrets of Dumbledore isn’t far off from being great. All it needs is a slight reshuffling of the structure to allow the audience to understand the stakes. Beginning the film with a smaller peril, perhaps an extended version of Newt’s journey to find the mythical beast will allow the characters to explain to the audience the importance of the beast and how it falling into the wrong hands is the worst possible thing that could happen.
Instead, we’re treated to not knowing and a plot of ‘do random stuff so that Grindlewald doesn’t know what we’re doing’, ultimately confusing the audience. They’re meant to be trying to stop Grindlewald but don’t seem to act to fulfil that goal until right at the very end. Their inner monologue stays hidden at every opportunity, masking any of the characters’ true thoughts.
The film would make for a great novel, though.
Johnny Depp filmed one scene before he was asked to depart. According to various media reports, because of his “pay or play” contract he will receive his full $16m salary.