Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The adventures of Newt Scamander take a strange, dark detour through a case of election fraud that’s lacking in magic.

Dark Shadows

Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore
Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore

Let’s face it. Director David Yates doesn’t particularly excel at staging action sequences. His sweet spot is in the character elements, which is undoubtedly important in an environment as colorful as the Wizarding World. But, even so, for better or worse it appears the Fantastic Beasts series is stuck with Yates as J.K. Rowling’s director of choice as he’s already attached to direct the next two — and final — chapters.

There are certainly plenty of fanciful bits. The pinnacle of the creativity in this episode revolves around a nifty blend of the humorous and the deadly as Newt (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) and his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner, Emma), encounter a nest of scorpion-like creatures with a penchant for mimicry.

In Secrets of Dumbledore, it’s not so much the direction that holds things back, though, it’s the storyline. In this case, it doesn’t open up the ol’ Quidditch broom and put it through its paces. The energy simply isn’t there this time around, despite all the right elements being put in place. Consider it an anomaly made all the stranger by the fact the screenplay’s written by J.K. Rowling and Steve Kloves, who wrote no less than seven of the eight Harry Potter screenplays.

The Daily Prophet

Maybe it’s a factor of the times we live in, with the world exiting Covid in fits and starts. The U.K. is living with Brexit. The U.S. is living in a post-Trump world that’s still reverberating from accusations of the “big lie.” Everybody’s suffering from fake news fatigue and a lack of trust in the institutions that form the foundations of society. Even the latest iteration of the Batman features a high-profile mayoral election in Gotham City.

And now the Wizarding World is lurching toward a battle between the wizards and the Muggles. As Dumbledore himself puts it, “the world is getting pulled apart with hatred and bigotry.” And, reinforcing the not-so secret notion this chapter is all about poking and prodding at current events, there’s this comment of sound enlightenment, “All voices deserve to be heard, even if they’re disagreeable voices.”

In that setting, it’s the International Confederation of Wizards that’s looking forward to a peaceful transfer of power. But one can only hope it’s more peaceful than the whirlwind of controversy that transformed Gellert Grindelwald from Johnny Depp to Mads Mikkelsen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).

Muggle Wars

As Secrets of Dumbledore rumbles along, the bulk of the story follows the crimes of Grindelwald. Well, that is to say it follows Grindelwald’s fall and rise and fall and various manipulations that allow him to go from reviled to revered, from a criminal to a Confederation candidate.

Strangely enough, there are quite a few parallels between Grindelwald and Senator Palpatine in Star Wars, particularly in Episodes II and III. The narrative trajectory is also similar, with a focus on all the politics that ultimately lead to calamity.

With Grindelwald absolved of all those heinous crimes from the previous episode, he’s now allowed to run in the election. But, of course, it’s not going to be a fair vote.

No, it’s not about dangling chads or ballot box manipulations.

In this case, it is one of those titular fantastic beasts that’ll decide the winner. A Qilin can look right into a person’s soul and determine if they are good or evil. It’s a pretty solid voting bloc, but still one that the most nefarious of minds can bully and disrupt.

What’s really cool about this setup — and the Fantastic Beasts series in general — is how it further expands the Wizarding World. Things have grown dramatically, with the territory expanding from London and Hogwarts to New York, Berlin and other locations. That now extends to Bhutan, which is dubbed the birthplace of magic and the site for the latest elections.

Ravenclaw Abbey

Eddie Redmayne is Newt Scamander
Eddie Redmayne is Newt Scamander

Bhutan. A great idea right there. But Secrets of Dumbledore doesn’t do enough with the setting and the culture. It’s limited to being merely a cool-looking visual element.

That, ultimately, is the theme of this chapter. There’s a lot of good here, some great ideas. Some loose ends are tied, characters evolve (most especially Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, The Offer)). But all these components aren’t taken far enough.

Since so much of the action comes across as rather staid and various character relationships continue to simmer and steam, it begins to play like a wizarding spin on Downton Abbey. While Hufflepuff Abbey has an odd ring to it, it also conveys how the blending of styles that started out so exciting in the first Fantastic Beasts has now become a bit cluttered with colliding ambitions.

As a result, some of the characterizations suffer. For one, Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam, Stillwater) doesn’t quite work through his role as a mole in the plans Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes) concocts to “create confusion for a guy who can see the future.”

For that matter, the deepening revelations of the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship — while offering some interesting insights — play out awkwardly. The way things unfold here, it’s a little snicker worthy. In that sense, it’s less a betrayal between those two wizards and more a betrayal of Yates’ focus on crafting fully realized magical characters.