It has been more than a fortnight since the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore in most markets, and nobody seems to care. Sure, people have watched it and its global box office collection appears to be approaching a respectable $300 million mark, but it is nowhere close to what a time-tested franchise is supposed to inspire and earn.
This is a movie set in the same world as the cultural phenomenon and box office behemoth that was the Harry Potter series. It also shares the creative team. David Yates is at the helm of the franchise, just like he was with the last three Potter films. But for some reason, the franchise continues to be a case of diminishing returns.
At a budget of $200 million, Secrets of Dumbledore will have to earn around $800 million if it is to recover its budget, let alone earn profit. The film needs a miraculous recovery at the box office, driven by a never-before-seen section of fans to drive its business with positive word-of-mouth, who are now disillusioned with the franchise.
That, needless to say, is unlikely.
What is Fantastic Beasts?
The franchise is named after Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a book that is both real and fictional. Written by Magizoologist (a wizard or witch who studies magical creatures) Newt Scamander, it was also written by and released as an actual book by Rowling.
Played by Eddie Redmayne in the movie, the Hogwarts alumnus and Englishman Newt is extremely likable as a dorky but talented wizard. We find him in New York in the first film, ostensibly to release a trafficked thunderbird to its home in Arizona, but it is revealed in the sequel that he was sent there by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law essaying the younger version of future headmaster of Hogwarts) to keep an eye out for Gellert Grindelwald, the supervillain of the franchise and the most powerful dark lord in history until Voldemort outdid him.
The subsequent films and the franchise as a whole is leading up to the titanic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, who is his former lover. The face-off will establish Dumbledore as the greatest wizard of his age.
So why is the franchise a failure?
The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, promised a return to the Wizarding World and was pretty well-made and received positive reviews (74 per cent on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes) and was a commercial success ($814 million worldwide box office).
But the follow-up, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was summarily panned by critics (36 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) and was also a box office failure ($654.85 million). And now, Secrets of Dumbledore, though better received than Crimes of Grindelwald is likely going to be an even bigger disaster.
The franchise, some might say, has been doomed from the beginning. Harry Potter films worked because writers and directors had thousands of pages of source material at their disposal in the form of JK Rowling’s books. Fantastic Beasts, on the other had, did not have any concrete foundation from which to launch a franchise.
And the preliminary decision to divide the franchise into five parts, on the basis of outlines (perhaps) did not inspire a lot of confidence. The whole franchise smacked of cash grab by Warner Bros and Rowling, of trying to capitalise on the popularity of Harry Potter. The first movie was a success and the franchise should have gained popularity with future instalments. But Crimes of Grindelwald turned out to be a total mess with a plot that was at once too complicated and too simplistic. The film was overstuffed and overlong, and did not have many of those wow moments that peppered Potter movies.
It did not help that fans were not too happy about Johnny Depp, who essayed the supervillain of the film Grindelwald, being part of the cast. Depp had been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife Amber Heard, and had become something of a pariah in Hollywood. But Warner Bros stuck with Depp, at least until he lost his libel case against UK tabloid The Sun that had called him a “wife-beater.”
But all hell broke loose when Rowling came under fire for her alleged transphobic tweets and statements. Her contention is that there should be a distinction between biological females and trans women, and that there are only two sex, as opposed to gender, which can be multiple.
She has angered transgenders, activists and their allies, many of whom have began re-evaluating the diversity quotient in her books. Once, she quote-tweeted an article whose headline read, ‘Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.’ She joked, “People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Not only her fans, but even stars of Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films sent messages in solidarity for trans community, insinuating that they did not support Rowling’s comments. Emma Watson, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter series, tweeted, “Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are.”
Eddie Redmayne, who plays the lead role of Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts film series that falls under Rowling’s Wizarding World franchise, told Variety, “Respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself. This is an ongoing process. As someone who has worked with both J.K. Rowling and members of the trans community, I wanted to make it absolutely clear where I stand. I disagree with Jo’s comments. Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid.”
Can Fantastic Beasts recover?
The short answer is yes, but Rowling should probably remove herself as a screenwriter. I earlier said that Fantastic Beasts appeared to be a cash grab when it was announced, and it is true. But cash grabs have worked before. The Lego Movie, released in 2014, was the very definition of a corporate product, but its stellar creative team (Phil Lord and Chris Miller) made sure that the movie did not only justify its existence, it also proved that no matter what the subject matter is, great writers can always do wonders with it.
Rowling is certainly one of the greatest fantasists, of her age, the modern Enid Blyton, but as should be clear by now, she is not a good screenwriter. This is why Steve Cloves, who basically scripted the entire Harry Potter series, was invited to assist her with Secrets of Dumbledore. But even that was not enough. Perhaps Cloves should take up sold credit in future instalments — if, and this is a big if, the franchise has a future.