There’s a bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail pointing out that the way Arthur became King doesn’t make a lick of sense. If you’ve seen it, you can probably hear Dennis the peasant (though he’d hate to be defined as such) on his rant: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” This absurdity, taken quite seriously, is the crux of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, only with the Lady of the Lake replaced by a magical, all-knowing deer doling out the divine mandate. This deer (a CG Bambi that can spot leadership potential a mile away) replaces such riveting plot forces as a cursed woman slowly becoming a full-time snake and a bunch of nonsense surrounding the identity of Ezra Miller’s character. It is almost symbolic in its arbitrary silliness, as author-turned-screenwriter-turned-transphobe J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise can’t decide what it’s about on a moment-to-moment basis, let alone a film-to-film basis. The third film in the series is only sure of one thing: Anything remotely resembling Harry Potter will make money, even if it’s a dull piece of first draft hackwork less sensical than Holy Grail’s “farcical aquatic ceremony.” As Rowling continues submerging her magical world into the same hellish and disreputable bog as her personal legacy, I wish she’d kept The Secrets of Dumbledore to herself.
While you might initially think that, thanks to the arrival of Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, Secrets of Dumbledore would be better than the stream-of-consciousness drivel that was its predecessor, Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling’s unfiltered ramblings remain incoherent or, at best, majorly disoriented. Aside from the deer-thing, the movie doesn’t have much to do with beasts, Fantastic or otherwise—though the personality-free Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) clings to his tenuous position as our lead. The magizoologist continues to putter along the fringes of WWII-esque political upheavals (and his own movie) thanks to his proximity to Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), headmaster and all-around wizarding badass. He’s so badass, in fact, that he’s been narratively hamstrung: He and Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), the films’ magic-supremacist baddie (let’s just call him Wizard Hitler), were once in love and conjured up a spell-enforced armistice because…well, the explanation we get is effectively, “You know, just in case we break up.” As Wizard Hitler makes his move for office, trying to use the deer-thing to legitimize himself politically and justify his Wizard Holocaust, it’s easy to get hung up on a few questions:
The wizard populace at large would vote for Wizard Hitler as long as he was endorsed by one (1) baby deer?
Wait, Dumbledore spent a summer hooking up with Wizard Hitler?
To that nutty, latter point (Who hasn’t watched a former flame’s Facebook descent into political madness?), Law and Mikkelsen provide the only watchable moments in Secrets of Dumbledore, allowing their genuine chemistry to complicate their ideological animosity. Director David Yates—blessed with both characters and actors for the first time in the franchise—allows them to be tactile, wounded, desperate. A lonely Law yearns behind his bushy beard while the handsome, serpentine Mikkelsen puts his thin lips and leering eyes to their sneering best. When they finally do get into a confrontation, a moment of inadvertent touch generates more sparks than every wand in the film combined. Unfortunately, due to the powers that be at Warner Bros. having calculated exactly how much this gay relationship was worth in yuan, even this pleasantly charged connection will disapparate into thin air for some parts of the world.
But don’t worry, those opposing Wizard Hitler—Theseus (Callum Turner), Yusuf (William Nadylam), Lally (Jessica Williams), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Bunty (Victoria Yeates), who range from grating (Lally’s accent) to non-entities (the rest)—are crystal clear in their intention to bewilder us with unrelated scenes. These are justified as such because that damned Wizard Hitler can see the future, and thus they must act in unplanned and chaotic ways. Considering the lack of throughline, it’s easy to think this is the way Rowling wrote the film, and the franchise in general. If you’re on the run from some kind of Wizard Hitler, J.K., you can give us a sign, perhaps by donating a large sum of money to a trans rights organization.
These political scenes are particularly dopey because they predominantly take place in Berlin, just in case we didn’t get the Wizard Hitler thing…after spending an entire literary and film series with Voldemort, her other Wizard Hitler. That said, some of the constructed locations are engaging through sheer technical prowess, especially impressive considering how insipid they are to think about. In fact, the film features laudable FX work throughout—the way the performers interact with the CG critters, flying debris and various teleportive poofs of magical dust is particularly seamless and convincing compared to previous entries—from a team handed an unforgiving job. You’ll really believe that you’re being bored to death by cloudy otherworldly confrontations, scorpion attacks in Wizard Guantanamo and ballroom blitzes.
Those nearly sound exciting, but they’re all flat without any narrative drive or the bare-minimum internal logic that the Harry Potter series had when establishing the strange mechanics of its Wizarding World. In Fantastic Beasts, there is no such thought. Whether it’s seeing the future, breaking an unbreakable curse or running a mind-numbing shell game through an Orientalist take on Bhutan (Dumbledore notes that mystical ol’ Bhutan’s filled with extra-special magic)—everything works just like the magical duels: Wordlessly, without satisfactory explanation and however happens to fit the script at the time. Sometimes the film will remember, in the midst of its muted political intrigue, that it should throw something in there for the kids (it does, but it unfortunately takes place in the aforementioned Wizard Guantanamo). More often, it only considers the grown-up kids who’ve got misplaced brand loyalty and cash on hand. They’re certainly the only ones who’ll be willing and able to wade through the series’ charmless and fickle narrative. Oh, yeah, and all that stuff with Miller’s character, whose bloodline was such a big deal in the previous film that there was a half-hour scene dedicated to reveals and misdirections? Well, I’ll tell you one of Dumbledore’s secrets: It gets one more twist, which is that it doesn’t matter at all.
Director: David Yates
Writers: J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, Jessica Wilgram, Katherine Waterston, Mads Mikkelsen
Release Date: April 15, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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