Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore treats its audience like idiots

When it comes to making a film, some crimes are more heinous than others. Somewhere near the top of that ill-fated list, competing with the likes of lacklustre villains and awful retcons, sits the offence of ignoring the golden ‘show don’t tell’ rule. Fantastic Beasts: Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t just break this commandment over and over again, but it does so to such an extent that it actually treats its audience like idiots.

It’s difficult to fathom just how a franchise that got off to such a strong start managed to fall off a cliff so easily. The debut film was brilliant and has great re-watch value; the second installment was a shambles from start to finish, and the third is only marginally better than that.

The film’s major issue had reared its ugly head by the end of the opening scene. Dumbledore patiently awaits the arrival of Grindelwald (who looks a little different to how we remember him) before engaging in what starts out as an interesting conversation. Before long, however, the titular character is asked why he originally went along with the pair’s evil plan.

Instead of hinting at the reasons why or actually using some writing talent to show that Dumbledore did it out of love, the writers decided he should blatantly blurt that fact out loud. This is unbelievably lazy, and shows that they didn’t trust the audience to work it out for themselves (even though most already knew it).

If you’re in charge of building a franchise from the ground up, this can sometimes be excused if you don’t yet have a loyal fanbase at your disposal. However, the Harry Potter universe isn’t exactly an unknown quantity. The writers can go into these projects safe in the knowledge that the majority of fans will already know a great deal, and yet they still fall into the trap of telling us exactly how characters feel.

Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

They took this so far that they actually use Queenie Goldstein’s Legilimens powers solely as a method for them to do it. Rather than dedicate some scenes to flesh out characters and have the cast earn their pay cheques, she is shoehorned into several scenes just to state exactly how everyone feels. It’s so blatant and it’s downright awful.

Her own character development is stunted as well; she ended the second film by turning to Grindelwald’s side and abandoning her friends because she genuinely believes his cause is right. By the time Secrets of Dumbledore begins, she has already changed her mind and come the end of the film, she is happily accepted back by the main characters.

Why not show us her change of heart? Because that would have taken too much effort; instead, she becomes a metaphor for the film’s major sticking point. The writing team either didn’t trust their audience enough to work things out for themselves or they didn’t have the talent to build on some half-decent characters; either way, they treated us like idiots.

This isn’t the film’s only problem. For the second movie running, the pacing is absolutely horrendous; once again, there aren’t clear opening, middle and end acts. Instead, the film all blobs into one slow, meandering storyline and then jumps to the final conquest with little warning. You would have thought that after the previous film was slammed, this mistake wouldn’t have been repeated.

Bad writing then takes a backseat as outright incompetence comes to the fore. With Grindelwald firing a killing curse at Credence Barebone, both Dumbledore brothers leap to his defence and jointly block the spell. You cannot do this – it literally breaks canon.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (published in 2000), we are specifically told that the spell is: “Not nice. Not pleasant. And there’s no counter curse. There’s no blocking it. Only one known person has ever survived it”.

It was surviving the unblockable killing curse that made Harry Potter himself famous to start with – it literally sets the original series into motion. But here we are, with a group of bumbling writers who forget the rules set by their own universe, who decided to slide in a scene of two men deflecting the spell around 50 years before Voldemort’s spell backfired and Harry became known as The Boy Who Lived. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Of course, that break of canon was shoehorned into the film solely because the producers had written themselves into a corner with the idiotic ‘blood pacts’ shared by Dumbledore and Grindelwald. These were a barbaric addition, made no sense and should never have been included to start with – it would have been so much more powerful if Dumbledore had been reluctant to fight his opponent out of love and fear of the truth about his sister’s death. Use character, not plot MacGuffins.

Image Credit: Hype Malaysia

Instead, the pacts were included and the writers didn’t know how to get rid of them. So they tossed aside rules written up over two decades ago and gave us a half-hearted reason as to why the spell was suddenly broken. Lazy.

Speaking of half-hearted attempts; they clearly realised they’d made a mistake in the second film by name-dropping Credence as Dumbledore’s brother. Having gone too far to get rid of that reveal altogether, they hastily changed tact and decided he should be Aberforth’s son instead. This kind of writing reeks of inadequacy and belongs in the doldrums of filmmaking.

Credence himself was significantly short-changed in this movie. He was one of the most compelling aspects of the first film, but seen his role diminish in the sequel and might as well have been absent come this edition. There is absolutely nothing worthwhile about his character at all and his presence adds nothing to the story.

This is a common issue, and it affects former star Newt Scamander worst of all. Eddie Redmayne was truly given the chance to shine in the series’ opener and did so spectacularly, creating a character that suited this universe down to a tee.

In The Secrets of Dumbledore, he is reduced to little more than a video game character. His sole purpose is travelling the world, being handed small tasks along the way and completing them one at a time. He has no character development in this film whatsoever, which is criminal considering he was the best thing about the opener.

The only time Redmayne gets a chance to properly act is in the final ten minutes, when Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein re-enters for a cameo appearance. I’m not actually sure why she wasn’t in the film throughout, but it suffers without her. With no key relationship for us to latch on to, it’s just two hours and 23 minutes of events which we struggle to care about.

Image Credit: Polygon

The writers tried very, very hard to push some sort of strange agenda with Muggle Jacob Kowalski. I’m not sure why there were a seemingly infinite number of lines that go something like ‘you are the purest man with the best heart’ shoved in throughout the plot, because it had no bearing on the outcome at all. It felt odd.

I thought it was going to pay off in typically cheesy fashion with the magical Qilin choosing to bow before Jacob, but we didn’t even get that. Instead, it bows to Dumbledore. Why? Again, this goes against canon.

We are told at the start of this film that the Qilin bows before those who have the purest of hearts. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we learn that Dumbledore was in fact not the angelic figure we and the books’ characters always believed he had been. He was a deeply flawed man who had committed some atrocities and learned from his mistakes, but who was never able to truly escape the troubles of his past (think of him being cursed in the Half-Blood Prince when he opts to slide on the horcrux ring).

Of course, the blockbuster film industry nowadays isn’t interested in having characters with any significant flaws. Take a look at the main cast for this movie – which major sticking point can you pick out? There aren’t any. All of a sudden, Dumbledore is deemed a perfect man simply because the writers want him to be.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much time to develop realistic character motivations because of the pointless time spent with inconsequential witches and wizards. Yusuf Kama (pictured below) is possibly the worst of all; what does he do? I’m confident he doesn’t say more than ten words throughout the entire film, with the camera just zooming in on his face as he stares into space. His fight back against Grindelwald’s cronies come the end is supposed to feel like a shock, but it falls spectacularly flat.

Image Credit: Screen Rant

Grindelwald himself wasn’t great. Johnny Depp’s performances haven’t been amazing in recent years, but I actually think he’d done a very good job as the dark wizard; he was mysterious, dark and felt genuinely threatening. His forced departure from this film was appalling, but Mads Mikkelsen was probably the best replacement on offer.

However, the character just isn’t as compelling. He gets little time to truly show off Grindelwald’s inner evil, and when his plan is foiled come the end of the film he just stands around watching for around five minutes. Is this realistic? Would the Grindelwald of the first two films have done this? Would the only dark wizard to rival Voldemort on the fear scale be content to do so? No.

Character motivations throughout the movie are a little strange at best and non-existent at worst. Newt assembles a little Suicide Squad early on to help kick-start the adventure, but why are its members content to join him and Dumbledore? Newt’s brother was at odds with him for much of the previous film, but joins him without a question asked here because Dumbledore asks him to trust him.

The others are just there to make up the numbers; they have no true motivations themselves, and are just there for the ride.

Image Credit: GameSpot

The humour employed in the movie isn’t great either; the writers tried to hit all the same notes of previous films by having Jacob blurt out an attempted joke every two minutes. It wasn’t needed and reduces his character to a laughing stock, meaning their efforts to paint him as ‘the most kind-hearted man in the world’ falter even further.

There aren’t many secrets about Dumbledore either, are there? It’s literally in the title of the film, and yet I don’t think we truly learn anything about the character we didn’t already know from the Harry Potter books. Surely the writers didn’t just name the film that because it sounded good?

When it came to the design of the movie itself, it was a mixed bag. Overall, the cinematography was good – but you expect that as a bare minimum from huge franchises like this. The musical score was magical as always, but again you expect that from a Harry Potter product. It’s difficult to get it wrong.

However, the constant use of slow-motion fight scenes is appalling. I’m not sure why the editors decided to take a Wonder Woman approach to their conflicts, but it doesn’t come off at all. Magical fight scenes are best when played at full speed, where we can see and feel the full extent of the power on show.

Think of Dumbledore and Voldemort’s fight in the Order of the Phoenix film; look back to Harry’s first bout with the dark wizard in Goblet of Fire; even Newt’s fight with Grindelwald in the first Fantastic Beasts film is pretty good. It’s no coincidence that the final battle in Deathly Hallows: Part 2 fell flat after it used slow motion, and this film fell into the same trap.

There aren’t many highlights in Secrets of Dumbledore. Redmayne finally shines in the final ten minutes and a couple of Dumbledore moments are worthwhile, while Professor Eulalie ‘Lally’ Hicks is a fun addition even if she doesn’t have much of a character herself.

Image Credit: Variety

That’s honestly about it. Jacob is annoying, Queenie is pointless, Tina’s absence is detreimental, Grindelwald isn’t frightening, the writers have no talent.

With one excellent and two awful movies so far, the Fantastic Beasts franchise has a lot to do if it wants to claw back any reputability. There are two films remaining to do that, but time is running out for Newt and company to go down in history the same way Harry and his band of classmates did.

Rating: ✩✩

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