Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, by Cameron J. Czaja

Unlike the previous movies that I’ve reviewed for The Legionnaire, this one is a bit different because Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is the first movie that I’m covering that I’ve seen it two weeks in advance. One afternoon during my break from work, I discovered a link for free passes for an advance screening of the film and I immediately got them before all were taken. It’s been a while since I went to an advance screening. The last was 2019, probably. However, I did recall the proper procedure when going to this unique movie event. For example, I made sure I got there two hours beforehand for two reasons: one, the line can get pretty long to get in and, two, even though I had a pass to get in that didn’t mean I was guaranteed an entry unless you are part of the press. Years ago, I tried to attend a free screening, and when I got there a few minutes before the screening started, I was denied entry because the theater was full. I would’ve complained about how they go about it, but it’s a free movie and I really have no leg on which to stand. Anyway, to get back on topic, when I was in line for the movie, I realized that we haven’t done a review for a Fantastic Beasts film for The Legionnaire. So, before I talk about the latest installment in this series, let me give you a brief description on the others because this is the third installment of five planned films. 

For those who are unaware of the Fantastic Beasts films, it’s basically a prequel series set in the same universe as the Harry Potter films. Unlike the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films, this particular prequel series doesn’t feature Harry Potter or the rest of the characters in those films, except for Albus Dumbledore, though instead of being played Michael Gambon, he is portrayed by Jude Law. This is because they take place decades before Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is born. Instead, the character we primarily follow in this film series is Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne.

Unlike Harry Potter, Newt doesn’t have the same stature of a famous wizard we all know and love, though he does have an important role in the Wizarding World. His occupation is that of a magizoologist, which is a wizarding word for one who studies magical creatures. He even wrote a text book called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” that Harry uses when attending Hogwarts. The book is also the title of the first film (2016), which is set in 1926 New York City. In that film we follow Newt as he visits the city for the first time and unexpectedly meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (a U.S. word for Muggle which means nonmagical person), and Porpentina Esther “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), who are two witch sisters. In the film, his new companions help him retrieve magical creatures that escape from his magical suitcase that one can enter and is bigger on the inside, similar to a Tardis for you Doctor Who fans. At the same time, they expose a dark and powerful wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who is disguised as a high-ranking wizard and is arrested on site, which sets up the events for the next film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018). In that film, Grindelwald escapes the magical authorities before going on trial for his crimes with the help of his followers. From there, he starts growing an army that will wage war against the muggles because of his belief of wizarding superiority. Not only does this attract a lot of attention from the Wizarding World, but from Albus Dumbledore as well. Albus needs Newt help to find a young man named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) because he fears Grindelwald is trying to persuade him to joining his side because Credence has a powerful connection to magic. The reason Albus needs Newt to do this quest is because he can’t advance towards Grindelwald due to the two of them making a blood pact when they were younger. Near the end of the film, Grindelwald not only recruits Credence for his army, but Queenie as well, who fell in love with Jacob during the events of the first film. Next, Newt presents Dumbledore with a vial originally in the possession of Grindelwald. This vial contacts the blood pact that both Dumbledore and Grindelwald made, which prevents them from dueling each other. With it in his possession, Dumbledore thinks it can be destroyed. Before the film ends, Grindelwald presents Credence with a new wand and reveals his real name which is Aurelius Dumbledore; the nephew of Albus. 

That paragraph pretty much sums up the Fantastic Beasts franchise so far and normally I wouldn’t give an extensive recap of them but I wanted to fill you guys in on what the series is about before I give my review of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface of these films because there’s a lot I could’ve mentioned, but I’ll save it for when we do a review for the others. So, how was today’s film? As usual let’s find out.

Also, side note: one thing that I should mention about this film franchise is that it has attracted a number of controversies in the past couple of years. From the recasting of Johnny Depp’s character of Grindelwald to J.K. Rowling’s views on transwomen and more recently Ezra Miller’s criminal activity, it has received some negative attention. In this review, I will not be covering any of those topics as I want to judge the film based on the film itself, and discussing those topics would increase my already lengthy review. Now that I mentioned that, on with the review.

Set a few years after the events of the last film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore follows Newt Scamander who is currently in Kweilin, China, tracking a magical creature called a Qilin. This creature has a special gift of seeing unto one’s soul as well as the future. Newt finds one as it’s about to give birth, and after it does, Grindelwald’s acolytes, led by Credence, discover the Qilin. They then proceed to kill it and kidnap the newborn Qilin. Little do they know that the mother gave birth to a second Qilin, which Newt quickly recovers and places in his suitcase while fleeing the scene. From there, Dumbledore once again recruits Newt to thwart Grindelwald (now portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), who still has pland for world domination, as he can’t fight him due to blood pact that they made when they were younger. As yet, Dumbledore has still been unable to destroy it. Working with Newt is his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), an American Witch Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams), a Senegalese-French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and Jacob Kowalski. Their first mission is to go to Berlin, Germany, which is where Grindelwald is set to appear. While there, the group discovers that Grindelwald has been acquitted of all is crimes by the International Confederation of Wizards and is now running for the office of Supreme Mugwump, which is basically one of the highest positions in the Wizarding World. The stakes have now been raised for Newt and his crew as now they have to stop Grindelwald from being elected but also protect the second born Qilin as (in Wizard’s tradition) it plays an important role in the election for the office of Supreme Mugwump.

When it comes to my thoughts on the Fantastic Beasts series on the whole, it ranges from mixed to positive. The first Fantastic Beasts film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is one I enjoyed quite a lot. Granted, I was in the minority because some felt lukewarm about it. The second film in the series, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, left me with mixed feelings. I did enjoy it, but my biggest criticism of the film was that it felt so convoluted when it didn’t need to be, and didn’t leave me wanting to rewatch as soon as possible. This installment, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, is definitely a much-needed improvement. When I got to watching the film, my first reaction was positive, a feeling that lasted throughout the following day when I was still processing the film. I will say, however, that one major bit of criticism that I had this also goes with the other films as well, and that is that it didn’t quite capture the same charm and (no pun intended) magic that the Harry Potter series had. While this may feel like a bit of unfair criticism comparing two franchises, I feel like you need to do so because this series is written by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, and it clearly seems like she (and Warner Bros.) wanted another phenomenon for the fans. Unfortunately, it’s not, but it’s close.

If you were born in the early ‘90s like myself, chances are you grew up not only reading the Harry Potter books, but seeing the films as well. They were the Star Wars and (retrospectively) the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) of our time. It’s a hard series to top let alone replicate. When news of the first Fantastic Beasts film came out, I was curious, though I had a feeling that it wouldn’t live up the hype of the Harry Potter films. Unfortunately, I was right. What made the Harry Potter films special is that they were based on a series that we got to know right away and re-experience them through a film adaptation. With Fantastic Beasts, however, they are not based on a series of books but rather direct screenplays from J.K. Rowling herself. The problem here is that she’s not a veteran screenwriter, and I’m not saying one can’t transition from writing novels to screenplays, but it feels like she’s writing content that seems more fitting for a book than an actual film. The first film was somewhat of a fluke, but once it got to the second film, that’s when it got convoluted with a lot of material just to set up content for future films. In this film, however, the story feels more focused and was easy to follow. To put it into perspective, I haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald since I first saw it in theaters, and after watching a recap on YouTube, I forgot a lot of the events that had happened. Here, I was able to follow the plot easily because the filmmakers took note of what didn’t work the previous film and made a simpler film. What also helped is that this is the first Fantastic Beasts film where J.K. Rowling wasn’t the sole writing credit. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote a majority of the Harry Films, lent a hand to writing this installment. This film feels more coherent and fluid when it comes to storytelling, which is something that this series needed not just for the fans, but also people casually going into this franchise.

Aside from the focus of the plot, another improvement in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Grindelwald. That’s not to say that Johnny Depp was bad, and I was curious to see him continue playing the character, but given the controversy of the actor at the moment (which I mentioned earlier I won’t get into), I can see why they re-cast him. After watching him in this one, it seemed like a no brainer as to why the filmmakers cast him as the dangerous antagonist. Mads Mikkelsen took over a major role in the middle of the franchise and he did his job like a professional and did not phone it in, which is something I appreciated. He could’ve easily given a poor performance, but he understood the assignment and portrayed the character as if he was there from the start. In retrospect, I now wish Mads Mikkelsen was originally cast as the dark wizard. His portrayal of Grindelwald felt natural as if we’ve seen him as this character before. Then again, he did play a Marvel villain (with dark magical powers) in Doctor Strange (2016) so maybe that helped.

So, one thing I did while watching Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is take notes. Usually, I’m not a big note taker when watching a new film, but because this series is so convoluted, and it’s been years since I’ve seen the last film, I needed to make some notes to help me recall some minor details in the film. One of the minor details that I wrote down is the appearance of a Phoenix throughout the film. For those who aren’t aware. A Phoenix is a magical bird that is reborn after it dies and (while not stated) is an allegory for a certain character in the film who is slowly dying. I find the timing of this film’s release interesting because as of this writing it is Holy Week, when a certain someone (Jesus) will die, but much like a Phoenix (though it should be the other way around), will arise from the dead. Also in my notes, I wrote down how certain characters have a pure heart, such as Jacob and the Qilin (who can detect such traits), and Dumbledore comments on this to Jacob. I mention this because Jacob is basically our avatar throughout the Fantastic Beasts franchise. I really appreciate having a likeable character to follow throughout this series. I say this because if we have to follow a character throughout a series of films, it’s nice to know that they have good intentions which is something I wish more franchises had. This is a good way of looking at the end of Lent, too, as being a purgative time where we are made pure for Easter.

Is Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore perfect? Sadly, it’s far from it. As mentioned before, it didn’t have that charm and sense of wonder that the Harry Potter films had that is much needed in this franchise. I will say, though, that one thing that the Fantastic Beasts films have that’s not in the Harry Potter films is how it shows the Wizarding World beyond Hogwarts, which is something I’ve been curious about while watching them and I hope the world building continues. Overall, I did enjoy this film quite a bit and I might (after Easter) watch this again, but this time in IMAX. Recently, I’ve been trying to watch every film in theaters in IMAX (yes, I did see Morbius and Ambulance in that format, ugh), and thanks to having an AMC Stubs account, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re already a fan of this series, then I can see you enjoying it.

If I had to rank all three of them in the series so far, the first Fantastic Beasts is so far my favorite followed by this film. The second is definitely my least favorite, though there are some things I did enjoy it despite the flaws. But I’ll save my thoughts on that when I do a review for it down the road.


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