The news this week that the latest instalment in the Fantastic Beasts saga will be titled The Secrets of Dumbledore has been met with a chorus of meh across the geekosphere. The general consensus seems to be that after 2018’s misfiring sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald, these magical mysteries better be up there with the recipe for KFC if Warner Bros want fans to tune back in for part three.
It’s a pity, because JK Rowling’s venture into fantasy screenwriting promised so much. Freed from the structures of her Harry Potter novels, with their Malory Towers on magical Kool-Aid veneer, she wrote an opener, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that offered an enticing vision of the wizarding world’s recent history. Even the Crimes of Grindelwald, for all its muddled, often strangely meaningless plotting and messy characterisation, boasted an enduring sorcerous sparkle.
But with the various off-screen travails endured by both Rowling and star Johnny Depp in the intervening period, as well as the saga’s on-screen slump, the shine has rather rubbed off this particular golden snitch. The Secrets of Dumbledore, in which Depp will be replaced as Grindelwald by Mads Mikkelsen, really needs to take home the Quidditch Cup if the proposed five-film series is not to be cut unceremoniously short.
What could the secrets of the title be? We already know – because Rowling told us more than a decade ago – that Dumbledore (played by Jude Law in these prequels) is gay, and Beasts 2 revealed that the future Hogwarts headteacher had a blood pact with Grindelwald, made in their youth, to never go into battle with one another. Then again, the latter’s “crimes” last time out were more like endless devious plotting. I suppose The Evil Five-Year Plan of Grindelwald didn’t have quite the right ring to it.
Could these secrets be ones we already know about, but the main protagonists in the new episode do not? Perhaps Dumbledore’s queer identity is a big deal in the wizarding world – which Rowling has always taken great care to present as a sorcerous mirror image of our own society. Yet it’s hard to see her going big on Dumbledore’s battles against the bigots, for obvious reasons.
One of Beasts 2’s other big revelations was that Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone is really Aurelius Dumbledore, the long-lost brother of Albus and their sibling Aberforth. If the world’s greatest wizard has secrets up his gown that are even more devastating than these, then truly he represents a sort of human version of Area 51, spitting out enigmas with elegant regularity for the convenience of Rowling’s whirling plot machine.
Fantastic Beasts now finds itself in a similar position to the Star Wars prequel series, which built up at glacial pace towards the point where Anakin Skywalker finally turned into Darth Vader, yet left viewers with a massive sense of anticlimax when the big reveal actually happened. Even worse, Beasts doesn’t even seem to know what it is building up to, other than the presumed quiet retirement of Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander after dispensing with the Grindelwald-shaped threat sometime after the end of part five.
We already know that Grindelwald isn’t up to much in old age – he ends up locked in his own fortress for half a century while waiting for He Who Must Not Be Named to come and kill him. So all of Fantastic Beasts’ magic lies in the dizzying visual splendour of the old-school, jazz-age wizarding world – and as Crimes of Grindelwald proved, that only goes so far.
According to a plot synopsis, The Secrets of Dumbledore will see the wizard send Newt and his friends off on a dangerous mission. It could be to put the kibosh on Grindelwald’s late evil wheeze, or perhaps to discover a rare monster that holds the clue to turning the tide against the baddies. But let’s fact it, it’s probably going to be to save Warner Bros from having to call a halt to this whole darn sorcerous farrago while the wizarding world still has at least a little bit of its dignity intact.