Fantastic Beasts The Secrets of Dumbledore

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore fails at being magical

“David Yates’ third instalment in the Harry Potter spin-off is predictably entertaining, but soulless.”

What’s the difference between a superhero and a wizard? Both are born with difference. They possess gifts that set them apart from everyone else. Wizards are slightly more egalitarian than superheroes. You may be born a wizard, but you must still develop your wizarding skills just as any muggle learning a new skill would. To my mind, the key distinction between wizards and superheroes is duty. Superheroes have to save the world, but wizards are under no obligation to do so.

So, what makes a group of wizards, witches (and one muggle) decide to save the world by defeating Grindelwald? The second instalment in the Fantastic Beasts series has a surprisingly compelling answer: because Dumbledore can’t. In the first scene, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) meets his ex-lover and now nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) to try to dissuade him from seizing control of the wizarding world and starting a war with the muggles. A fool’s errand, no doubt. Coiled around Dumbledore’s right hand is a blood trot: a physical manifestation of the blood pact he and Grindelwald made that protects them from each other. Dumbledore cannot move against Grindelwald. He enlists Magizoologist Newt Scamander (an annoyingly awkward Eddie Redmayne) to lead a team of brave, if not foolhardy wizards and witches. And yes, one muggle baker.

Set in the 1930s, David Yates’ third installment in the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts is predictably entertaining, but soulless. The film expands the wizarding world beyond the U.K. and the U.S. Sweeping green screen shots reveal Weimar Germany and Bhutan, but each visit feels more like a brief pit-stop than a serious attempt to explore those countries’ customs. The film doesn’t stray too far from the familiar grounds.

As The Hobbit trilogy proved, spin-offs and prequels rarely capture the excitement of a new world being built before your eyes. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is no different. Its fan-servicing scenes in Hogwarts accomplish little. Some fans may shiver with glee when they hear Dumbledore refer to a young Scottish woman as “Minerva” (as in McGonagall), but this moment feels engineered to create that response. It feels especially contrived given that the film’s 1930s setting would place Maggie Smith’s McGonagall at roughly 100 years old. The rush to nostalgia couldn’t wait. There are some fun set pieces, one of which involves a cavernous prison and a hip-swaying crab dance. Still, I longed for it to be weirder. Are the days of auteurs like Alfonso Cuarón making their mark on a franchise long gone? 

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
Mads Mikkelsen replaced Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The performances are good, but unexceptional. Of course, there are great actors in mega-budget films, but rarely do these films require the actors’ to extend their expressive range. Jessica Williams, playing Professor Eulalie Hicks, imposes a mannered midatlantic accent that sticks out like a screaming mandrake next to much more contained performances. The usually excellent Mads Mikkelsen has replaced Johnny Depp, but is given little to work with as a villain. Depp has often been accused of sucking out the creativity from his scene partners rather than playing off of them, but here Mikkelsen plays it too cool to leave a strong impression. The film suffers from the same ailment as most MCU and DCU films. The stakes are too high to feel invested in them. Grindelwald, a wizard supremacist, wants to rule over the wizarding world and eradicate muggles. Yet, neither world feels lived in enough to care. In the Harry Potter film, Voldemort had similar ambitions, yet his fixation on Harry felt somehow more threatening. Perhaps knowing Grindelwald’s ultimate fate also tempers the audience investment. 

Dumbledore’s supposed secrets feel more like a first-draft backstory than a juicy past. Unsurprisingly, J.K Rowling has nothing interesting to say about being queer (as a muggle or a wizard) in the 1930s. Grindelwald was Dumbledore’s lover, but nothing beyond Dumbeldore referring to him as such would confirm it. My inner cynic suspects that in countries where queer depictions are censored, Jude Law’s lines specifying the nature of their relationship could be swapped out to suggest something more platonic. Either way, Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship is stale. 

One of the pleasures in Harry Potter was seeing the ways in which the wizarding world brushed up against our world. The ripples that hint at an underwater tsunami are undetectable in Fantastic Beasts save for one particularly evocative shot between Dumbledore and Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) that effectively visualizes this flip. Detecting the similarities between our worlds was part of the joy. Teenage angst and break-ups couldn’t be resolved with the flick of wrist. It was also hard not to imagine how much simpler and richer our lives would be if we could apparate or vanish objects. So why does Fantastic Beasts take this pleasure for granted? ■

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 15.

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