Movies & TV

Secrets of Dumbledore Is the Best Chapter in a New Potter Series Nobody Asked For

If Crimes of Grindelwald made audiences weary of the Wizarding world, this latest effort is an enjoyable, emotional return to it, our critic writes.
IMAGE WARNER BROS.

It’s been four years since the Crimes of Grindelwald and you’d be completely forgiven if you feel like the story has been Obliviated from your memory. The second installment in the five-film Fantastic Beasts series was a plodding, convoluted, overly complicated and overly long affair that, by the end of the film, it felt like the Wizarding World franchise had worn out its welcome.

Much has happened in those four years. The global pandemic effectively shut the world down and as we all turned to social media to maintain our connections and our sanity, JK Rowling spent her free time on Twitter doubling down on her transphobia. Rowling’s stance on trans women tore through the fandom and as much as we fans love the Wizarding World, it’s difficult to show it knowing how it fattens Rowling’s already considerably fat TERF pockets.

It’s a real shame because The Secrets of Dumbledore is the most queer Wizarding movie to date. Almost as if to remind everyone that she’s an ally, JK Rowling, who wrote the screenplay with Potter series co-writer Steve Kloves, finally makes it film canon that Dumbledore and Grindelward are gay lovers. The subtle allusions to their relationship in past films always felt like a half-measure, but in the aptly named Secrets, Albus and Gellert are unequivocally, magically, fabulously gay and it’s great. We’ll take the win where we can.

Three actors have now played Grindelwald. Colin Farrell played Percival Graves, a transfigured Grindelwald, in the first film, and Johnny Depp was in the second. The beleaguered Depp was fired after a day of filming Secrets of Dumbledore and the role was recast with Mads Mikkelsen, who brings an austere gravitas to the character that contrasts with Depp’s manic energy. Depp’s Grindelwald bordered on the ostentatious, but Mikkelsen’s quieter menace is a better fit for this chapter.

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There’s absolutely no explanation for the change in appearance as director David Yates doesn’t even bother to give Mikkelsen the same hair and mustache as Depp’s version. This isn’t like Richard Harris being replaced by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. At least they had the same beard. Mikkelsen and Depp’s Grindelwalds are completely different in appearance and demeanor and while Mikkelsen is terrific in the role, only the four-year gap between the two chapters dulls the jarring effect of the cast change. If you marathon the films (but why would you?), the stark difference can be confuddling. Warner Bros. might as well go all in with transfiguration and recast Grindelwald with a trans woman like Alexandra Billings or Trace Lysette in the next film.

At any rate, Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald is perfect for the story in Secrets of Dumbledore. It’s election year in the Wizarding world and it couldn’t be more appropriate for the Philippines as the parallels are uncanny. One might argue that it should even be required viewing before May 9, but the allegory might be lost on the people it needs to reach. 

A new leader for the magical world is about to be elected, and the whole process is a bit confusing for muggles; candidates are campaigning with banners and rallies but wizards don’t actually get to vote since the winner is actually chosen by a Quilin, the Chinese version of a unicorn. A surprisingly inclusive choice of candidates includes Asian and Latin American ministers of magic with the unabashedly criminal Grindelwald thrown into the mix.

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Grindelwald has friends in the electoral system, and manages to squeeze his candidacy in after disappointingly, but also unsurprisingly, being acquitted for all his crimes in the second film. That Grindelwald would walk freely among his wizarding peers after the atrocities he committed would seem implausible at any other time, but we live in a world where convicted felons can run for the highest office so a candidate running on a platform of ethnofascism actually checks out.

Of course, since this is Gellert Grindelwald, he plans to cheat the elections so it’s up to his former lover Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) a.k.a. wizard Nick Fury and his wizard Avengers to stop him. “Dangerous times call for dangerous men,” Dumbledore tells his crew, and it’s a reminder that the worst kind of people tend to gain the most popularity in the worst of times. Spoiler alert: we live in the worst of times.

This is why Secrets of Dumbledore might be a more important film than it was meant to be. It’s a metaphor for a democracy that’s under threat of being upended, where someone who has been convicted of violating the law is within spitting distance of the highest position in the land. Basically, we are all called to be Newt Scamander or, more appropriately, his best friend the good-hearted muggle Jacob Kowalski, and try and stop the unthinkable from happening.

Secrets of Dumbledore might arguably be the best chapter in a series that nobody asked for. Particularly for Filipinos in what might be the most important Presidential elections in our lives, the film comes at a time where we need all the allegorical tales we can get. We have real-life Grindelwalds in our midst and while ethnofascism isn’t a particularly Filipino problem, the criminality is the same. 

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We should all aspire to be Jacob (Dan Fogler), who has the heart and courage to stand up to one of the most dangerous wizards of his time armed merely with an ersatz wand. The neurodivergent introvert Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a hero unlike Harry Potter—a chosen one trope. Newt is driven not by fate or vengeance but merely because he wishes to do good. When he delivers Dumbledore’s message of “do what is right, not what is easy,” to incumbent Mugwump Anton Vogel, it’s essentially Newt reiterating his life motto and audiences should listen.

If Crimes of Grindelwald made audiences weary of the wizarding world, Secrets of Dumbledore is an enjoyable, emotional return to it. The story is ridden with plot holes and wizards don’t seem to say verbal components to their spells (except for when Grindelwald uses the Cruciatus) such that they all seem like they have superpowers, but there are great visual spectacles and some tender moments to make it worth it.  

Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), aka Aurelius Dumbledore, fades from the story after being so central to the first two films that you wonder why Grindelwald took so much effort recruiting him. Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is also inexplicably largely absent, her dynamic replaced by Professor Lalie Hicks (Jessica Williams). Little things here and there make the film feel uneven but altogether still enjoyable.                                                                                                                                      

There’s enough triumph and closure in the story that in the unlikely event that Warner Bros. tires of printing money, they can end with a trilogy instead of their original plan of a pentalogy. In fact, it gives enough closure that you almost wish they’d stop there. Secrets of Dumbledore is satisfying enough for the studio to quit while it’s ahead while leaving enough loose ends to explore in the future.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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