Numerous spoilers ahead.
After seeing “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” directed by David Yates, I think I’m done with the franchise at this point. I’m disappointed by how a series that was supposed to be about the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and the fantastic beasts has increasingly been hijacked by a completely different story. This film is Dumbledore: the movie—I mean, the name of this latest installment is kind of a dead giveaway. And even if you like this premise more than the fantastic beasts, the film’s characters and writing really suffers as a result of its identity crisis.
The movie’s central conflict is one between Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), as you’d expect. Grindelwald is basically trying to get elected as the president of the magical world via election fraud, so Dumbledore wants to prevent his evil ex-boyfriend from getting his way. Now, where does Newt Scamander fit into this narrative? As merely a pawn in Dumbledore’s master plan. Our poor protagonist is barely able to exert any agency in the narrative. He goes to this place and does this thing because Dumbledore tells him to do it. He never seems to question or resist any of this, which would have been a brilliant move to offset the latter’s overwhelming narrative presence. It would have also been a highly intriguing conflict to develop. Imagine standing up to the great Dumbledore! But instead, he does his bidding throughout the entire film, and the missions just seem so insulting and inconsequential. They’re all just a ploy to confuse Grindelwald. It is Dumbledore who ultimately defeats Grindelwald and saves the day. This is quite strange because the film tells you at the beginning that he is unable to fight Grindelwald due to a blood pact, but then it is nullified at the last second for reasons that aren’t given until after the fact, which feels like sloppy writing. In the end, I feel terrible for Newt. He’s basically sidelined in his own franchise and reduced to an errand boy to make space for Dumbledore. You can even see this in the film’s title screen: “The Secrets of Dumbledore” is in a much bigger font size than “Fantastic Beasts.” I don’t think this was ever the case with “Harry Potter” films.
The other characters are also barely relevant to the story. Jacob (Dan Fogler) gets a wand (I was quite excited by this scene in the trailers) just to confuse Grindelwald and that’s it. Queenie (Allison Sudol) is already uncomfortable with Grindelwald right after joining him at the end of the second film, but doesn’t do jack about it. Yusuf (William Nadylam) pretends to join Grindelwald on Dumbledore’s orders and doesn’t do jack either. Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) does absolutely nothing except getting kidnapped and thrown into a dungeon. The most you can say for these characters is that they were required for the final act, which feels so much like a rehash of the opening scene of “The Deathly Hallows.” Tina (Katherine Waterston), the most important main character aside from Newt and Dumbledore, doesn’t appear until the ending of the film—it makes no sense! It’s also insane to me that Credence (Ezra Miller), who seems to be a really important foreshadowing and a powerful villain in the previous films, is a total pushover. He tries to kill Dumbledore but is defeated and pacified instantly and then basically loses all narrative presence beyond that point.
The titular fantastic beasts are in a similarly sad state of being, being reduced to MacGuffins and props for comic relief. At the start of the film, Grindelwald acquires a Qilin (I can’t stop thinking about the John Cena bing chilling meme whenever I hear the characters say the name), a super magical creature that can not only see into the future but also see if someone has a good and noble heart. He kills it to enhance his own ability of precognition and reanimates the poor thing later on to manipulate its pseudo mind-reading ability to rig the election. That’s pretty much the most you’ll get for the fantastic beasts in terms of their importance to the story—just as a magical object with no real character behind it. In a later scene, Newt goes to break his kidnapped brother out of jail. This strangely brutal dungeon is home to a massive scorpion-like monster that eats prisoners unfortunate enough to have the light in their cell, which are actually produced by these firefly-like creatures, extinguished. There are also these crab-looking bugs that eat people too. Newt shows off his knowledge as a magizoologist by walking in a funny pose to pacify the crabs, which gets a few laughs out of the audience. And then Newt’s adorable sidekicks, the little plant thingy and the platypus, save the Scamanders by retrieving Newt’s wand and his brother’s port key. It’s a cool action sequence, but it has zero impact on the plot and could be cut completely. It was probably included because Rowling or the editors also realized just how unimportant the fantastic beasts are in the actual story and had to find some excuse to shoehorn them in.
In addition, the inclusion of the Qilin produces some really questionable, immersion-breaking plot points. Killing the Qilin enhances Grindelwald’s ability to see the future, but having this ability ends up being counter-productive for him. He can only see bits and pieces of the future, and it seems that he isn’t actually able to hear what’s going on. This makes it easily exploitable, which is why Dumbledore sets out to confuse Grindelwald. Now, I understand why Rowling didn’t want to make this ability better, probably because it would be too overpowered and difficult to write around, but I don’t understand how Grindelwald is so gullible that Dumbledore manages to trick him without a hint of suspicion from him. For all his cunning to fake the election, he somehow failed to realize that the ability has glaring weaknesses. And are we expected to believe that for all the preparations behind Dumbledore’s trickery, Grindelwald never sees any of them? There’s a scene where Newt’s assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates) commissions replicas of Newt’s magical briefcase, and there’s another scene later where the characters gather with all the replicas. Everything else that transpired between these two points in time is also susceptible to Grindelwald’s precognition. He might not be able to hear what’s going on, but at the very least it should be more than obvious that something’s fishy with the visuals alone.
The Qilin’s ability to tell whether a person has a good heart is used in the opening ceremony of the election to show which candidate is better. On one hand, this totally defeats the point of an election because it obviously nudges voters in a certain direction, and they are left with only an illusion of choice because one of the choices has already been revealed to be the best, unless all of the candidates have a good heart I suppose. On the other hand, it is strange how the Qilin does influence votes in the case of Grindelwald. His voters are basically racists wizards who hate muggles, and they want to vote for him for his policy: to wage a war against muggles or something like that. Then it’s hard to believe how they are so quick to change their votes when a different Qilin shows a different candidate to be of good heart. Who cares if he’s got a good heart? Shouldn’t they just want him to deliver on his campaign promise?
Maybe I’m in the minority here. I really enjoyed the first “Fantastic Beasts” film that was actually about fantastic beasts. Whereas my girlfriend much prefers the stuff about Dumbledore in the two subsequent films, and I imagine probably some die-hard “Harry Potter” fans think so too, since it is fan service after all. But these two things need not be mutually exclusive—the writing just needs to be faithful to the “Fantastic Beasts” name and good. Like I suggested, having Newt resist Dumbledore’s control would have been an exciting move. Maybe we’ll see something like this in the fourth film, but I don’t think I’ll stick around for that. Rowling just isn’t competent enough as a screenwriter to get things right with this franchise, as is clear with this current installment.