Monday, January 30

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’ on HBO Max, the Continuation of an Endlessly Drab ‘Harry Potter’ Sequel Series

The Wizarding World franchise slogs on with Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the third post-Harry Potter movie that’s actually a pre-Harry Potter movie since it’s a prequel. But you already knew that. So, some inventory: At this point in the Fantastic Beasts saga, David Yates is still directing (it’s his seventh WW movie), Eddie Redmayne is still wand-wielding Dr. Doolittle guy Newt Scamander, and Jude Law is still superwizard guy Dumbledore, but Mads Mikkelsen is now evil guy Grindelwald, replacing the troubled/disgraced Johnny Depp. Box office/popularity-wise, it’s been diminishing returns for these three movies, with Secrets of Dumbledore “only” grossing $389 million worldwide, down significantly from the previous entry, which may put the next two planned chapters in jeopardy (I’ve seen sequels torpedoed for less; remember how Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a failure when it “only” earned $700 million?). There also seems to be a lack of true creative inspiration here, per the reviews at least, including this one you’re reading right now.

The Gist: Dumbledore (Law) sits in a restaurant, looking contemplative. Grindelwald (Mikkelsen) sits down across from him. They are mortal enemies, but are not here for combat. No, a magical blood pact between them prevents them from fighting, but surely not for long, right? Well, long enough for most of a pretty long movie to go by at least. It’s a tense moment for many reasons, one of which is, they used to be lovers. We can relate to that situation, until we realize these two men can spell-and-wand the living crap out of their magical powers with the very very best of them, and so it’s far more complicated for them than it would be for those of us normies for whom a small stick in the hand is just a thing on which one may roast a marshmallow.

Cut to Newt (Redmayne) in a forest. He’s fetching a beast, and yes, it’s a fantastic one, didn’t you read the title of the movie? It’s a qilin, a very rare and special creature, a scaly doe-eyed hoofed quarter-ugly/three-quarters-cute thing that emerges from an egg. We will eventually learn that this thing can see right into your soul and can see the future, which is why it’s used to help select the head wizard, known as the Supreme Mugwump (please note: this is quite different than the Mugwumps in Naked Lunch), who will be elected by the people and/or chosen by the qilin, or however it works, the selection mechanism is not made clear here. Grindelwald’s minions appear and kill the mother and snatch the baby qilin, which he murders so he can acquire its powers. But all hope is not gone – unbeknownst to the baddies, mama qilin had twins, and Newt absconds with the second baby.

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Now, this is the part of the movie where Too Many Characters are introduced – all of whom have absurd British names like Brundlepud Gooseflange and Dilly Froompertuts – so they may participate in the plot, which I will use great and mighty powers of reductionism to summarize: Grindelwald wanna take over the world, Dumbledore gotta stop him. It’s more complicated than that, with allusions to fascist Germany, many excuses to use wand-zappery and plenty of beasts one may characterize as fantastic if one is feeling moderately generous, but to further explain risks boring you to death, dear reader, and that’s quite clearly the movie’s job. Lord knows there are people out there who are invested in what happens here and willing to chew on every little detail of the lengthy build-up to Dumbledore v Grindlewald: Yawn of Justice, so godspeed you people, godspeed. For the rest of us though? Yeesh.

Fantastic Beasts
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Fantastic Beasts movies are a lot like the Harry Potters, but with all sense of wonder, character, purpose and story dynamics meticulously stripped from them.

Performance Worth Watching: Terrific cast here, too bad no one asked them to do anything charismatic. Mikkelsen is always good at emanating an air of menace, but that alone doesn’t cut through this movie’s overwhelming sense of blahh.

Memorable Dialogue: So hey some of you among the Too Many Characters, what’s everyone going to do about Grindlewald?

Newt: The best plan being no plan.

Lally (Jessica Williams): Or many overlapping plans.

Newt: That’s confusion.

Jacob (Dan Fogler), giving voice to every non-Potterite in the audience: It’s working on me right now.

Sex and Skin: All those wands, and not a single double-entendre to be had in 142 minutes of movie.

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Our Take: There’s a shot here in which the Big D (that’s Dumbledore) sits in a dimly lit room glumly spooning soup into his mouth, and it’s an accurate representation of how drab and inert this movie is. I bet the soup is lukewarm and flavorless, too. I’m also shocked that the shot doesn’t last three times longer than it does, since every other scene is needlessly drawn-out far beyond the threshold of our interest; it’s as if the film enacts the old Treebeard philosophy about saying only things it takes a long time to say, like, oh, at least a dozen beats past when there should’ve been a cut to a new scene. Funny, how Secrets of Dumbledore is so grossly underedited, and how another movie in a different franchise, Morbius, was hacked to the bone, and both flopped and underperformed for audiences and critics. Funny!

There’s a lot of stuff in this movie – new stuff, old stuff, stuff that refers to other stuff, stuff that matters, stuff that doesn’t matter, just stuff, a lotta stuff. Action stuff, like a sequence in which Newt rescues his brother from a prison policed by a giant hydra-scorpion, which is a relatively exciting bit, albeit one that’s too long, an empty display of CGI effects that feels utterly extraneous, existing only to have an exciting bit to break up all the boring bits. It’s full of characters who should be more poised or charming than they are – a drab Dumbledore, an underdeveloped Grindlewald, a sullen and pouty Kylo Ren type played by Ezra Miller, who reveals one of the things in the title (secrets, not beasts). These are a bunch of sullen poops, driving the drama right into the earth. And as the curiously blank central character of this series, Redmayne continues to play Newt as a stammering no-look-in-the-eye guy who’s a bundle of mannerisms in search of a character, and probably just needs to get laid.

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There’s plenty of talent here, albeit at the service of furthering the franchise, which drags its girth along the ground like great and ugly gray worm that no one has the guts to squish. Visually, it’s flat and unimaginative, uniformly the color of dishwater, or darker. The comedy – usually via Fogler’s clueless character – plunks like rocks dropped in a river, going straight down into a cloud of murk, never to be seen again. Dramatically, it builds to a big showdown that, unlike every other scene in the movie, is curiously short, but, just like every other scene in the movie, is a disappointing bore, a non-spectacle that does little to justify your fighting off encroaching drowsiness for the preceding two hours. Magical, my ass – Secrets of Dumbledore is about as crushingly ordinary as movies get.

Our Call: The more-hit-than-miss, but generally enchanting Harry Potter series stands in great contrast to the Fantastic Beast flicks, which get more dreary with every passing chapter. (Maybe there’s a correlation to be had here – the FBs aren’t based on pre-existing material, suggesting J.K. Rowling is terrific at fantasy prose, but lousy at screenplays.) Unless you’re really, truly, ruthlessly invested in the Wizarding World, in all this world building with little purpose, SKIP IT, and skip it hard.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at

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