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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (Christian Movie Review)

Overall

2/5

Final Verdict: The magic is fully gone in this dull, politically charged slog.

About The Film

The Harry Potter franchise apparats back into movie theaters for the third entry of its prequel series. The dark arts have been against the Fantastic Beasts series from the start, including several off-screen actor scandals and author J. K. Rowling’s newfound hot-button status. Most of all, the first two films were undone by convoluted stories and a cynical, joyless tone. With Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the fantastic beasts themselves are all but gone, and so too is all the magic from this once beloved franchise.      

This is a review of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, not a broad discussion on Harry Potter as a whole. But before going further, let’s quickly address the giant hippogriff in the room—Magic. For many Christian audiences, the magical elements have been a deal breaker. This the 11th movie set in J. K. Rowling’s magical world, and I suspect by now most audiences have already settled their opinion on this topic on way or the other. For Christians who deem any fantasy magic as satanic or inappropriate, this movie will once again be a problem (although, notably, the magic here seems further removed than ever from any real-world inspirations). For those interested in the film beyond just the magical setting, there is more to explore.

There has always been a sprinkle of politics in the Harry Potter cauldron. For the most part, however, the stories explored larger and more universal human themes of friendship, good versus evil, heroism, and sacrifice. The Fantastic Beasts films, on the other hand, deal more directly with contemporary themes and topics. Thus, the plot centers on a political election. The big baddie, Gellert Grindelwald, has gone from an evil wizard raising an army for global domination to a suit-wearing, corrupt politician. Consider these lines from the movie:   

  • “The world is coming undone. Grindelwald is pulling it apart with hate. Bigotry. Things unimaginable today will seem inevitable tomorrow.”  
  • “A peaceful transfer of power which marks our humanity. And demonstrates to the world that despite our differences, all voices deserve to be heard. Even voices which many may find disagreeable.”
  • “We are currently a world divided. Each day brings talk of another conspiracy. Each day another dark whisper.”

There is nothing inherently wrong or unusual about movies commentating on contemporary issues. Yet, the timeless quality of the original Harry Potter stories has been lost. This unfortunate shift is also representative of one of the biggest issues with Rowling’s prequel series. The Harry Potter stories were largely an escape from harsh realities of our world. With the Fantastic Beasts movies, the worst of the “real world” has invaded and consumed the wizarding world.

J. K. Rowling is arguably one of the most imaginative and talented writers of the generation, so it is perplexing that the scripts continue to be so convoluted and drab; bogged down with subplots that go absolutely nowhere. In fact, even the main storyline is meandering, building for a payoff that never comes. For example, at one point, Newt and the other protagonists are sent to Germany to deliver a short message to a politician. In the process, Newt’s brother is captured and jailed. By the time Newt eventually rescues him and they rendezvous with the others, almost an hour and a half of the runtime has gone by, and the only thing accomplished is that a message has been delivered to a politician who promptly ignores it.

Another subplot involves a character going undercover as a spy, but he doesn’t learn any intel for the good guys and isn’t given any task by the Grindelwald to create a tension of loyalty. The entire plotline could be cut from the movie without altering anything about the story. Almost nothing that the characters do is consequential. Two-thirds into the film, one character even says, “Forgive me, but aren’t we back where we started?” Occasionally these scenes are fun (such as a scene with some crablike creatures), but it is hard not to feel like a 20-minute plot was stretched into an over 2-hour runtime.  

Rowling elects to abandon moving the overall story forward in favor of inching each character’s personal arc forward. Yet, since the runtime is divided between too many characters, most remain one-note and make decisions that seem necessitated by the plot, rather than feeling earned. Newcomer Jessica Williams is an enjoyable standout, and Dan Folger as Jacob Kowalski, a the fish-out-of-water muggle, remains endearing, and brings a sense of joy and wonder otherwise absent from these increasingly glum and cheerless stories. On the other hand, Mads Mikkelsen (taking over the role from Johnny Depp) is boring as Grindelwald, and Jude Law embodies none of the quirkiness that made Albus Dumbledore lovable. Newt Scamander and Queenie are both largely sidelined, and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the female lead who provided most of the heartfelt moments in the first two movies, is inexplicably absent outside a short cameo and a contrived explanation.

In the end, the filmmakers have a wonderfully developed imaginative world and a collection of characters at their disposal, but still no meaningful story to tell. I’m not sure if this is the end of the series or not. Secrets of Dumbledore lacks closure, but also does nothing to indicate or foreshadow what future stories might be told. Audiences will not need any “obliviate” charm to remove this uninspired, politically charged slog from memory. Some secrets, it seems, are simply best left untold.  

On the Surface

For Consideration

Profanity: At least 1 minor profanity (“H—”), and 1 use of slang, “stupid sod”).

Sexuality: The homosexual romance between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, which has been mostly hinted at in previous films, is now overt. While there is no kissing or lovemaking, the characters speak openly about their love are more externally expressive of it (gazing at each other, putting a hand over the other’s heart, etc.). These scenes/moments are not frequent, but the romance plays a central role in the story.   

Violence: Mostly bloodless action. The most graphic violence comes when several prisoners are killed by a giant scorpion-like creature, and then regurgitated as apparent for its smaller children (more implied than shown).  

Beneath the Surface

Engage the Film

Imperfect People Trying Their Best

Starting with the end of the Harry Potter films, and even more so in the prequel series, the character of Albus Dumbledore has been deconstructed from an idealistic archetype of a noble, benevolent mentor figure to an emotionally broken and flawed man. One of the plotlines involves little deer-like creatures who can see into the soul and judge the worthiness of the heart. It is stated that the creatures were once used to elect leaders, but now they are rare since no people are truly worthy. As one character says, “No one is. All are imperfect. No matter how much we try.” This sentiment is consistent with Romans 3:10-12 and the reality of sinful human nature.

Later, however, when speaking to a dejected Dumbledore, Newt says, “Even if we make mistakes, or do terrible things. We can try to make things right. And that’s what matters. Trying.” While Yoda might disagree, the central message of the movie is that humans cannot escape their sinful nature no matter how hard they try, but that does not mean they shouldn’t try to do good in the world or make things right. Perfection is not a prerequisite for doing good and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is a good message, and one that Christians can embrace, even if they know that, ultimately, only the powerful, saving grace of Jesus can make souls worthy.

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