Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
(SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit, if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts, there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald.
But at least there’s no Johnny Depp this time, right? Fabulous Beasts finally has righteousness on its side! As someone who was never a great fan of the main series – albeit, I’ll readily admit a couple of the sequels were pretty good – I didn’t feel tangibly let down by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was reasonably entertained, even if it was clearly led by the factors alluded to above (“What can we find to tell a story about in order to make more dough?”). At that point, I didn’t even find Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Newt Scamander – hero as cow-eyed, aspergic puddle – too wearisome on the nerves ("You can't be nervous about a speech after saving the world"? Eddie can convince you otherwise).
Prior to this review, I took another look at Miles Mathis’ take on the Harry Potter series (from 2016/17; as ever with Miles, you have to wade through a lot of his patented pseudo-genealogy to get to the meat); I’m abidingly suspicious of Mathis’ output, partly in terms of his prolific content, but also the question arising of, what it is, through revealing, he doesn’t want you to consider. And what is he asking you to understand in the wrong way? Mathis thinks JK Rowling is the output of a secret service team, and her content can be read in those terms (“Just substitute ‘agent’ for ‘Obliviator’, ‘non-agent’ for ‘non-magical person’, ‘Intel hoax’ for ‘magical event’, CIA for ‘Ministry of Magic’, and ‘propaganda blitz’ for Memory Charm”). Further still, the wizards themselves represent the Elite, while the foolish muggles, the “common folk” are “less than useless” and “completely expendable”.
Indeed, the “wizards as the Elite” is an obvious reading, so much so that Miles rubber stamping it almost makes me inclined to question such an interpretation. Mathis doesn’t think the Harry Potter movies really represent a Satanist – or Gnostic Luciferian, if you prefer – plot: “The Christian critique of Potter mostly doesn't fly, because, like Christianity itself, the books create a battle of good and evil, and Harry isn't on the side of evil”. Which is a bit like me contesting that his interpretation that “Children today are being taught to look upon their own parents as contemptible muggles and upon themselves as a superior class of magicians, who can potentially get whatever they wish with the proper spell” doesn’t cut it, as the children, born of muggles, must know they are muggles and so don’t stand a chance.
I do think there’s legitimacy to that reading (“an updated version of Plato's The Republic, where children are taken from their parents by the State, divided into classes, and raised to serve the interests of the Elders”), but this isn’t an either/or. Mathis scoffs at those who parallel Rowling and Tolkien (“Harry Potter is often compared to The Lord of the Rings, but the comparison could not be less apt”) on the grounds that Tolkien’s heroes are decidedly not Elite wannabes (the Hobbitses are muggles, basically), but that rather misses the point that their core appeal is, in both instances, the one he dismisses: magic. It matters little that their gateway drug is “good triumphing over evil”, if the end result is being hooked on godless occultism/Luciferianism.
So yes, there’s value in what he says, (“What Potter is promoting is a shallow fascism, one where all real religions and moralities are eventually jettisoned as getting in the way of business and total control”),but your conclusion will likely depend on who you think “controls” the Elite and what they want from that control. If you adhere to the materialist ballpark of spies and societal control, you’ll likely miss – or dismiss – the broader ramifications, which come into play with the transhumanist agenda. When Miles waves his “either/or" flag – “As I see it, the current Elders aren't Satanists. They are just thieves. They want to steal as much easy money as possible, as far as possible without you noticing” – one should be very cautious.
For sure, Satanism may be another control mechanism (in as much as what it “is” is, by definition, established as a polar force to Christianity), but it would be a trap to assume it is illegitimate for those reasons, as much as it would to consume only the Jay Dyer take (interpreting everything from his self-styled Christian stand-up “comedian” – very loosely in his case – perspective). The core principles of Satanism – or whatever term one chooses to describe the impulse or general doctrine/ethos it encompasses; Steiner would have it that it’s Ahriman who has been calling the shots for the current era, but we have to consider whose team he may have been on – are not contingent on Christianity for its sustenance.
We have to remember too where Miles sets his boundaries – he’ll dismiss the Earth shape subject out of hand – and consider the possibility that such limitations may be less out of personal preference than an instruction to redirect the inquiring mind.
Indeed, the dismissive response to Satanic design is sufficiently common, be it in context of MKUltra or as misdirection generally, that it can only makes sense – if one is professing to open-mindedness – to consider that it may be a conditioning measure. Mike McClaughry, for example, sings from the same hymn sheet as Mathis when he suggests “There is no such thing as the occult or black magic”; he outlines his belief that all those operating in this sphere are agents of spy agencies, going back to the likes of John Dee. Blavatsky, for example, was a “Russian humanist-social engineering spy”. Trance Formation of America, Cathy O’Brien’s tale of being a mind-control slave, similarly suggests Satanism (and aliens) are basic mind-control manipulation techniques employed by agencies (“…occultism is easily dispelled with reason and fact”). Dave McGowan also tends towards this perspective in Programmed to Kill.
If so, the JK agency kind of went off the boil when it came to Wizarding World. Or perhaps, it was a case of “job done” and, with Warner Bros demanding more content, they let the “actual” Rowling get to work. With the tepid results of the last few movies. Certainly, the extra time and sprinkle of Kloves did Rowling’s screenplay for The Secrets of Dumbledore no discernible good. And what to make of her cat-among-the-pigeons statements about biological women? It keeps the subject controversial and divisive in the public eye, which is clearly part of the (Hegelian) point. It also shows she’s evidently not considered a sufficiently toxic (biological) woman for Warner Bros to axe from their once monumentally profitable flagship franchise.
Of course, as with Mathis’ take on good vs evil, the actual subtext of The Secrets of Dumbledore is up for debate. As it stands, villain Dumbledore engages in (Satanic) blood sacrifice – of a poor little Qilin (a creature from Chinese mythology, although the Potterverse’s own version thereof), which can detect the pure of heart – in order to engineer an election victory and so wage war against the muggles. Obviously, Grindelwald fails, but hmmm… Who have we seen stealing an election recently, as part of an arrangement with those who would wage war against the muggles? Someone who doesn’t look anything like he used to, in fact, so not entirely unlike Grindelwald. We are even told “Each day brings tales of another conspiracy” and that “Deny them their voices and the streets will run with blood” (teetering on the Enoch Powell, or should that be George Soros?)
If you’re going to invoke a political thriller, though, go ahead and make one, rather than this lukewarm, fish-nor-fowl trifle. Given the unfussed, almost motiveless pace of these movies, a rigorously plotted mystery/investigation, a magical John Le Carré, would surely be a more appropriate flavour. Instead, The Secrets of Dumbeldore’s first thought is canvas and how to fill it, rather than story and how to tell it. There are occasional passages that hold attention, such as Newt quirkily – how else? – rescuing brother Theseus (Callum Turner) from wizarding prison via “limbic mimicry”. Returnees Jessica Williams (Lally Hicks) and Alison Sudel (Queenie Goldstein) make agreeable impressions in limited roles; much is made of the latter’s relationship with honorary muggle-of-value Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) whose heart, it is made clear, is super-pure. This may be the case, but he’s also given an elite wand to wave (the lure of the dark path), and he’s also a bit of silly fatty, just to make it obvious that muggles are not up to elite standards (you can’t help feel Queenie has a dose of pity affection for him).
It’s revealed Ezra “ker-razee!” Miller’s Credence, in a possible retcon since he’d previously been revealed as Albus’ brother, is Albus’ nephew by publican Aberforth (Richard Coyle). The character isn’t up to much here, although that’s largely the case for the prequel ensemble, barring perhaps the platypus thing (Niffler, it says here). One might argue Credence is only duped by the villain as a result of a lack of strong parental influence (so running counter to Mathis’ thesis). The most noteworthy thing about the character is that Miller seems to be made up to echo Alan Rickman as Snape. Why, I don’t know.
One might, if one so wishes, also extend an alternative reading to the Dumbledore narrative. It is, on the face of it, a massive step forward for the franchise’s progressive politics. Emboldened by the woke steamroller, Dumbledore’s thing with Hannibal Lector is now central to the plot, hence the title, as he… struggles to free himself from a toxic gay relationship - with added magical bondage – and so renounce such youthful errors of the past. Sure, there’s some hot liquid wand action at the climax, but this is decidedly unromantic; are there any out-and-proud-and-blissful-ever-after couples in the Potterverse? So in summary, what do we have? The Secrets of Dumbledore features audible damnation of attempts to steal elections, broken family units and same-sex relationships. Who made this movie, again?
Indeed, fitting with the contrarian take, one might point to the focussing in on big gay bear Dumbledore’s personal life – hot on the heels of focussing on the sure-fire hit of a hero unable to make eye contact – as a reason for the prequels’ steady decline in popularity (wokeness has also been cited in tumbles taken by the MCU and Star Wars; Spider-Man: No Way Home was notably woke-lite). After all, prior to the prequels, there was only Rowling’s after-the-fact outing of Dumbledore, and Potterheads could run with or ignore his sexual status as they pleased, per many prior form for Hollywood attempts to virtue signal in indirect ways that wouldn’t harm the bottom line.
Now, though. Regardless of subtext, there’s not much conviction to the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship. This may be in the nature of casting Mads Mikkelsen, a perfect fit for cruel, cold and calculated (not that he can’t do otherwise). Indeed, one’s instant takeaway is that Dumbledore was a dupe in the relationship, a means to an end (perhaps a prequel to the prequel is needed to clear this up: Young Dumbledore in Love). I’m unsure either of his prior incarnations would have sold the once-raw emotion; Colin Farrell would have stood the most chance, I suspect. Certainly, losing Depp wasn’t anything to cry about – not because it wasn’t gutless of Warner Bros, but this is exactly the kind of role, even when he wasn’t conspicuously distracted by dope and domestics, he fails to make anything out of (see any straight part – ahem – he’s taken in the past two decades and realise why he like working with Tim Burton, always happy to cater to his whims, so much).
Jude Law is very amenable, but he encounters the same problem his pal Ewan McGregor did as Obi-Wan; he’s simply ill-catered for on the writing front. He gets to be all beardy and sage, but you aren’t invested in his – or anyone else’s, for that matter – journey. Or world. Because, per form, this is a place of green-blue-grey, dour, washed-out existences. One might reasonably expect an embrace of wonder and vibrancy – of magic! – rather than the pervasive sepulchral palette. Director David Yates was out of creative juice by the time of the two-part original series finale, let along crawling his way through this utterly uninspired trilogy.
Also in the mix is a Katherine Waterston cameo; I’m unsure why she was side-lined here. There must be a story to tell; it’s not like she’s publicly done a Depp or Miller. Depp shot one scene but reportedly still pocketed his salary of $10-16m. Not having Depp wasn’t the reason for the $250m box office drop, though. It’s surely a conflation of hitherto alluded factors that can’t get even the devotees caring very much, and why not throw in the meaningless main titles (need to shoe horn some beast in) and lethargic subtitles to boot. Demographics suggest Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is not attracting new audiences (over 70% of audience is over 25), which is hardly surprising. They’ve already hooked the kids on magic, but try keeping them. I guess that will be down to Amazon’s forthcoming progressive take on The Lord of the Rings. A prequel…