The plan is for five Fantastic Beasts films in all – but to get that far, the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore has to deliver, and reunite the fanbase.
Earlier this week came the announcement that the new film in the Fantastic Beasts series of movies will definitely be with us next April, and that it’s going to be subtitled Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore.
It’s the third film in an announced series of five, but I can’t help feeling this one’s carrying a whole lot more weight than the two movies in the series to date. I appreciate there’s a lot of treading on eggshells when talking about the film, and I think that in turn goes to part of the problem the movie is facing. But also, there are problems from the second film in particular that need to be unpickled.
Let’s start with the films then. The first Fantastic Beasts film, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them I thought was a pretty decent effort. It was no better or worse than the first two Harry Potter films to my eye, but also, a whole lot of setting up without a great deal to enjoy there and then. I did particularly enjoy the excellent interplay between Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler – Queenie and Jacob – and the film’s box office gross of $814m worldwide would have turned the cells a pretty colour on the Warner Bros spreadsheet. Things were off to a good start.
Yet two years later, momentum was swiftly arrested. Aside from a sojourn to Hogwart’s, the film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald felt at best a movie for the purists, at worst one of the dullest blockbusters to come out of a major studio in some time. Appreciating these films have the same creative forces behind them as the last four Potter features – David Heyman, J K Rowling and director David Yates – it’s surprising they’ve not captured the spirit and feel of those movies. Instead, The Crimes Of Grindelwald felt like even more set up, and by the end I was – and I’ve never felt this about a film in the Potter saga before – bored. I don’t think I was alone either.
Of all the things these films shouldn’t be, appreciating this was my reaction and others differ, boring is surely top of the to-avoid list.
The problem at a fiscal level for Warner Bros was that nearly a quarter of the cinema audience for the previous chapter turned away from the film. The Crimes Of Grindelwald’s box office dwindled to $654m worldwide. Good by most people’s standards, but with a commitment to three further films, Warner Bros didn’t want the trend to be downwards. Yet that’s where it found itself. If you remember, Sony – when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made around the same amount as The Amazing Spider-Man, hit the reset button again, so spooked it was by the fact the sequel hadn’t made more. Now, Fantastic Beasts arguably finds itself in a much worse position, and is ploughing on.
Changes were thus made to film three.
Firstly, an extra year was built in – pre-pandemic – to spend a bit more time on getting Fantastic Beasts 3 ready. It was all set to arrive in 2021 had things gone to plan, the biggest gap to date anyway between Potter films. But obviously Covid wreaked its havoc, and it’ll be three and a half years between films two and three. That, straight away, must cause some nervousness back in Burbank: is the audience sufficiently invested enough to come return to the series?
I have no insight into how early the name of the film was chosen, but it seems a wise move from the outside looking in having something so overtly Potter above the door.
It was also revealed fairly early on that the man who adapted the Potter books for film – Steve Kloves – was recruited to co-write The Secrets Of Dumbledore. The first two films are the first two screenplays produced from the pen of J K Rowling. Bringing Kloves back to the team is something that it’s easy to read a lot into, but the truth is that we don’t know the decision making that’s gone on there. Either way, he’s a safe pair of hands, and that’s not at all meant as an insult.
Had all things being equal then, this was already a film with a delay and dwindling box office to arrest. I’d have written a version of this article anyway against that backdrop, questioning whether Warner Bros would go ahead with Fantastic Beasts 4 if the audience fell away a little more (accepting that these films will sell on television and in boxsets for the rest of time).
However – deep breath – two sizeable non-film related stories have overshadowed the movie, and it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge these are likely to have an impact. What level of impact is one of the great unknowns here.
Firstly, the recasting of the role of Grindelwald. There was some surprise when Johnny Depp was cast in the part in the first place, I recall, leading to J K Rowling on her website posting a defence of the actor back in December 2017. “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”, she wrote.
This did not last. Depp and Amber Heard’s relationship breakdown – and that’s a very, very simple way of putting it – was being played out in the public eye. Allegations on both sides surfaced, and in November 2020, Depp was asked by Warner Bros to leave the role of Grindelward. He ceded to the request, making clear it he was asked and he didn’t choose to. To get across just how late in the day that was, he had already shot a scene for the third film by this stage. Mads Mikkelsen has stepped into the part.
Allegations that Heard made about Depp of domestic violence were ruled by a judge to be “substantially correct”. In turn, Depp is now suing Heard over a piece she wrote in the Washington Post. The latter will head to court in April 2022, just as the new Fantastic Beasts film lands. In the meantime, Depp’s fanbase is vehemently looking to defend the actor, who himself has now – ironically, in a piece that’s been reported across the world – discussed and warned of “cancel culture” declaring “no one is safe”. You can read the full context of that here.
Then there’s J K Rowling. Most headlines regarding her in the last year or two have been less about her work, and more about her position on transgender identity. Rowling’s position is stated on her website here back in June 2020. A point-by-point response to her views can be found here.
This is an article about the upcoming film and the film franchise, but again, it’s impossible not to think that Rowling’s fanbase has been fractured here. I was in London when the world premiere for the final Harry Potter film took place, and thousands of people were chanting her name, the response very obviously moving her. It was as if she a movie star herself. Would that happen today? Again, I’ve got more questions than answers there.
What is well known is that the Harry Potter films and universe have been a special place for many in the trans community, and for many who have struggled through their youth too. And at best, I’d suggest – and I’m phrasing this delicately – for a good number of people, someone they were certain was on their side they’re less certain of now.
All this has impact because films do not exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by what’s going on in the world around them. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore will presumably be positioned as a must-see family movie, but the noise around it – which is surely going to intensify closer to release – is going to be broader than that, and surrounded by debates that wouldn’t be part of Warner Bros’ marketing deck.
Even standing on its own legs, this was a film that faced a sizeable challenge. Now, just judging by the response to this week’s title announcement alone, it’s got a far tougher job on its hands than the studio would have expected.
What the measure of success for the film is depends on who you ask, of course. But I’d suggest at the least the studio needs it to clear $400-500m at the global box office, in a time where that’s harder to hit than it has been in decades. It was telling that by the time the first film in the series came out, the second was in pre-production. By the time the first Potter film was out, the second one was deep into filming. There hasn’t been official yet, or even well-sourced news stories, about Fantastic Beasts 4. Again, Covid is likely to have played a part in that though.
Still, in the case of Fantastic Beasts 4 – and beyond that, Fantastic Beasts 5 – I can’t help but think it’s a project that’s no longer a sure thing. As someone suggested to me on Twitter, that maybe the third film will now have an ending point in there if Warner Bros opts to take it, and instead focus on the Hogwart’s TV series instead. That there’ll be some kind of get out. Right now, that looks the safest route to take. Unless Dumbledore really does have some magic up his sleeve, or if the new film is notably better than the last. The interest in Harry Potter and the the Wizarding World is clearly still sizeable. Whether it’s enough we’ll have a better idea of next Easter…
There are issues touched on in this article. If they are issues that affect you, or someone you know, then hopefully these resources might be of use.
The Terrence Higgins Trust has an excellent list of resource for trans and non-binary people that you can find here.
For those suffering domestic violence and/or abuse, Citizens Advice likewise has a strong list of resources here.
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