By Sam Moore | Film | April 20, 2022 |
By Sam Moore | Film | April 20, 2022 |
The question that gets asked the most about the endless proliferation of franchises, sequels, and spin-offs, seems to be a simple one: Why? And on paper, the answer is just as simple: Money. Yet two recent franchise entries — one a desperate attempt to stake a claim to the multiverse, the other a sequel to a spin-off nobody seems to remember asking for — turn that question into a more existential one. From the disastrous performance of Morbius to the sheer lack of fanfare — both critical and commercial — that’s greeted Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, these films need to work out what they are beyond simply being the next property to pitch a tentpole into the ground of an increasingly homogenous landscape.
And if there’s one thing that Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t know, it’s what kind of film it wants to be. Jude Law doesn’t even know what accent he wants to use as Dumbledore; mostly sounding like himself, other than the times where - often midway through a line - he’ll fall into affectation that sounds vaguely Scottish. The version of Dumbledore written for Law, and his interpretation of the character, feels like the uncertainty of Secrets in miniature form: a once-beloved character coming back, we’re just not sure why or what the point of him being here is. There’s been talk about how this film finally makes Dumbledore explicitly queer, that it’s somehow a queer triumph, but if you only need to cut two lines of dialogue to appease censors that want queerness cut from the movie then it was never queer to begin with. And the specter of censorship — such as it is — already looming over this film is interesting because of how badly it wants to be political. From its painfully on-the-nose decision to bring the far-right of the Wizarding World to Berlin to the way that it engages with the idea that we should hear out and debate those with extreme, dangerous views, Secrets — for better or worse — has contemporary politics all over it.
What’s strange is it never fully commits to these politics. The film maintains the eccentricity of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and has his rag-tag group of wizards, teachers, and one muggle baker brought together to fight against magic-fascism. So in theory, this could be a magical equivalent of a war movie about taking down a dictator. But the pacing is strange; the ensemble is brought together and then immediately scattered apart. There’s a meandering middle section through a prison that ends up taking all of the urgency out of the narrative before it reconfigures itself again by using a series of identical magic briefcases that contain an animal that will be able to reveal that Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) has lied and cheated his way to legitimacy. It feels like a kind of heist caper, an Ocean’s movie with magic powers. This is where the film is at its strongest; by letting the characters be interesting, and having magic be a meaningful part of the world, it ends up becoming a slightly bittersweet reminder of what this film could have been - and what its world could have meant.
There are moments when it feels almost like a breath of fresh air compared to the other tentpoles. The visuals have room to be more interesting and vibrant, and when the magic is actually allowed to breathe it can be powerful and evocative. There’s even a magical duel that takes place in a sort of parallel reality, as if it were the Wizarding World’s answer to Jujutsu Kaisen, featuring stark shades of black and the appearance of a phoenix. At its best, Secrets understands what magic is for in this franchise: as a way of understanding the characters, the world, and how these things are related to one another. This is a franchise that’s been animated for years by the adage that “the wand chooses the wizard,” and, in a perfect world, this idea would hold true for how wizards use magic, and how magic impacts the world. But it never quite works like that in Secrets. Instead, magic, and the genre doors that it opens up, become a sort of visual palette through which to filter tired, familiar tropes — about queerness, about extremism, about public life. Rather than offering a world that’s distinct from our own, Secrets is just a slightly murky reflection. As Grindelwald rises to power, Dumbledore argues that “things that seem unimaginable today will be inevitable tomorrow,” and it’s that feeling of inevitability that ends up turning Secrets into a film that struggles to justify its own existence. We know what the outcome has to be; for a film where the fate of the Wizarding World lies in the balance, the stakes are curiously low throughout. The potential for characters to betray one another is never fully realized; the tension of what Grindelwald’s grip on this world is - even when he’s on the ascendancy, being treated like a serious political figure - simply echoes discourse that’s already been done to death.
That’s the problem with a film like Secrets of Dumbledore. It tries to be everything for everyone: something familiar for fans of this franchise and the one from which it was born; a new way of looking at a character that the audience knows intimately; a film about politics; a heist; a film about family. There’s room for plenty of these things to exist in a single film — just not this one. It runs from idea to idea so quickly that nothing really sticks. Even the energy of the last act feels lost and let down because of the way that the ensemble wasn’t able to establish much of a dynamic beforehand. In ways both big and small, meaningless and existential, Secrets of Dumbledore simply doesn’t know what it wants to be — or how to be it — and so in the end it may be better to find a magical way to simply whisk this film away.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros (via YouTube)