Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore might be a slight upgrade on the last film, but it might not be enough to save the five film franchise.

Goodwill was not in short supply when 2016’s Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them debuted in cinemas, a welcome return to the world of Hogwart’s, witches and wizards on the big screen. As it arrived, Warner Bros launched the Wizarding World umbrella for its Harry Potter-related work, and J K Rowling announced as the first movie launched that there were five Fantastic Beasts films planned. This time, there were no books, and she was writing the scripts directly for the screen.

At the moment, though, it seems far from certain it’ll get to film four.

This past weekend, the third of the planned films – Fantastic Beasts The Secrets Of Dumbledore – launched into UK cinemas after several pandemic-enforced delays. But also, it arrived – and there’s little point suggesting otherwise – with its fanbase feeling rather fractured.

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Let’s address that up front. It’s well known that there’s a trio of controversies surrounding the Wizarding World, after all. Ezra Miller’s actions have left them in trouble with both the law and Warner Bros top brass. The decision to recast the role of Grindelwald, with Mads Mikkelsen taking over from Johnny Depp, continues to spark debate. And then there’s the author of the stories, Rowling herself, whose views on gender and trans issues now feel – wherever you sit on that debate – indelibly linked to the Wizarding World. Rowling penned an extensive essay on her views here, and there’s a detailed counterpoint from Jessie Earl at Gamespot, here.

Against this backdrop, there’s then been the films. Although at times, in truth, it’s felt like the films were more the backdrop than they should have been.

The first Fantastic Beasts was okay and set up the latest take on the world that Rowling wanted to explore, bringing in new character and chief protagonist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. The second movie though was an absolute slog and I can’t pretend I was a fan. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald saw the box office returns tumble, but perhaps more damningly, it garnered precious little enthusiasm for the film from all but the most devoted of Potter fans. The magic of the first collection of Potter movies seemed to have long gone by the end credits of Grindelwald, and even without other matters, the Wizarding World had hit a bump purely on the basis of the films themselves.

A response was expected, and we got one. The plan with film three was to bring back a key member of the Potter gang.

The first two movies had been penned by Rowling – her first screenplays – and directed by David Yates, who also steered the final four Potter films (Secrets Of Dumbledore marks his seventh consecutive film in the series). But this time, for Fantastic Beasts 3, back came Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for the bulk of the Harry Potter saga, and who’d been instrumental in wrestling Rowling’s books to the screen.

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Granted, it wasn’t the most radical personnel change, but if Kloves could elevate the material then Yates has long proven himself more than capable of bringing these stories to the screen. I don’t think David Yates is a director who can lift a piece of material in the way perhaps Alfonso Cuaron did with Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban (personally, the story that did the least for me, in the film of this saga that perhaps did the most), but he’s also an absolute whizz with Potter. There are moments in Fantastic Beasts The Secrets Of Dumbledore that reminded me how good Yates is at realising this world on the screen.

Thus, there was promise to this one, I thought.

But the resultant film doesn’t just, I’d suggest, fail to address the failures of the last film. It also throws up more questions. I think it’s a mild upgrade on The Crimes Of Grindelwald, but also, The Secrets Of Dumbledore – considering we’re at the half-way point of the planned saga – just seems to meander. I’m none the wiser, come the end of five films, just what the overall arc is here.

Much seems to have changed. Characters who were pivotal to the first film, and to a degree the second, have been relegated here. The idea that Newt Scamander is our lead through this world is certainly tested, as he takes a surprisingly reduced role in the story here. Now, if anything it’s Jude Law’s younger Albus Dumbledore who’s our main hero, but even he’s hardly dominating the screen.

I couldn’t help but wonder, during many of The Secrets Of Dumbledore’s slow patches, why that was. I’ve no insight here, but there was plenty of time during the film to ponder whether there was some degree of panic after the first and second films, and a decision made somewhere to edge far more towards familiar Potter ground. It’s telling that the most popular sequence in film two was a trip to Hogwart’s, and it’s little surprise we end up back there for a bit. The quarter-full Saturday screening I was in certainly lifted when John Williams’ Potter theme started to play.

Maybe though the direction we’re going is down to other off-screen matters. Was it the distancing from Rowling’s positions by, for instance, Eddie Redmayne, that’s led to some changes? I can’t imagine so, but also, the franchise has got to a point where us on our side of the fence couldn’t rule that out. Katherine Waterston, another member of the ensemble who criticised the positions Rowling has taken, is barely in the film at all, and at one stage, she felt like she was crucial to the broader story. Is she? Was she? Couldn’t tell you, but the evidence in front of our eyes here is that her role is reduced to blink and you’ll miss her.

Whatever the reasons, there’s a feeling that a course change has been made, and it’s not really one for the better (although I would say that Mads Mikkelsen is excellent, however his casting came about). I don’t want to go heavy on the spoilers, but I would say that, once again, it’s surprising how little – narratively – things have moved on by the time the end credits roll around (after well over two hours). There’s a story in there, but it’s a hodge podge. It feels like there’s a lot of bloat, and not a lot of drive. Where’s it supposed to be going? What was the plan here?

I’d genuinely be fascinated to see the original five film arc that J K Rowling planned for this series, and compare it to what it’s actually become. I’m no expert and she’s a far more successful writer than I’ll ever be, but I’d still be surprised if what she’d mapped out six or seven years ago is particularly close to where the films have gone.

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Even before The Secrets Of Dumbledore made it to the screen, the broader Fantastic Beasts franchise was facing an uphill struggle. The arrival of the film finally brings with it some definitive answers to whether its fanbase really has fractured as much as had been speculated. The early box office predictions and returns aren’t looking encouraging, with receipts coming in below the level of the previous movie. But still, it’s by distance been the number one movie in several territories around the world, and its US debut is this week. The signs are it won’t come close to the disappointing $654m take of The Crimes Of Grindelwald, but the results are far from fully in.

What’s certainly clear though is that Warner Bros has tempered its expectations here. That what should have been a sure-thing franchise has not, however you frame it, gone to plan.

How much of that is down to what’s happened on screen and how much is down to events and conversations off it remains a source of loud debate. But this feels like a franchise that still isn’t working three movies and seven hours of screen time in, and it’d be a brave person at the moment who puts a bet on it getting to the end of movie five.

Remember how we always knew when the next Harry Potter film was going to be coming along as each adventure landed in cinemas? Things have been eerily quiet where Fantastic Beasts 4 is concerned. I can’t help but wonder if it’s become a series where many cast members, its writer, and its parent studio are wondering if it’s worth all the bother. Because at the moment, the answers certainly aren’t on the screen.

Warner Bros and J K Rowling have made no announcement on Fantastic Beasts 4, and two months ago, producer David Heyman conceded that work on its screenplay hadn’t even begun. That suggests that the earliest we could get the film if it happens is in three years, another long gap for a series that can ill afford it. Things might just be clearer once all promotion for the latest movie is complete, but for now, Dumbledore’s going to need some pretty impressive magic to keeps things moving along…

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