The Fantastic Beasts franchise is getting its third entry early next month. Titled Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, the film continues the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a younger Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and their allies in the impending war against dark lord Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, taking over from Johnny Depp).
Set in the Wizarding World created by author JK Rowling, the same cinematic universe as the Harry Potter series, Warner Bros’ attempt at recreating the original’s success looks like a distant dream.
It is not even about the quality of the two films that we’ve seen so far — most will agree, though, that the second film is indeed pretty bad — the chief reason for the fans’ disillusionment is that the story that the series is telling is simply not appealing enough. But that is not the only issue that has plagued the franchise.
Why is Fantastic Beasts not as exciting as Harry Potter if it is set in the same world?
First, context. The Fantastic Beasts franchise is named after Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a book that exists both in-universe and in reality. Written by Magizoologist (a wizard or witch who studies magical creatures) Newt Scamander, it was also released as an actual book by Rowling. The first Fantastic Beasts movie and the book share the name, and on paper at least Newt is the primary protagonist.
Played by Redmayne in his trademark dorky, shy way, Newt instantly charms, and is a refreshing change from the usual sci-fi/fantasy protagonists with their inflated abs and egos. A Hogwarts alumnus, the first film begins with him arriving in New York in the 1920s. But he is not as super-talented wizard like Harry Potter or Hermione Granger, although it can be argued that Rowling never intended for Harry to come across as super-talented in the first place. Newt can, however, hold his own in a confrontation, and he avoids violence wherever possible.
His sole purpose of existence, it appears, is to care for and raise awareness about the magical creatures that reside in a pocket dimension inside his normal-looking suitcase. Are you a cat person or a dog person? Newt is a Niffler person. He knows the specific peculiarities and habits of probably each and every single magical creature known to wizard-kind.
And yet, as interesting a character as Newt is, he is no Harry Potter, whose very destiny was tied to the story’s primary antagonist, someone with whom he shared a yin and yang relationship with him. Newt does not much care for Grindelwald and his machinations, though we are told later that he was sent by Dumbledore himself. So while Newt is a person you would love to befriend in real life, in this story, it was probably not a good idea to make him the primary focus when everybody wants to see that titanic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald that the series is building towards.
Grindelwald also does not have that innate aura of evil that Voldemort possessed. He is too much like a… well, a man, despite the grand ambitions to unite wizards and witches and rule the world. Voldemort, on the other hand, was evil personified; more a force of chaos than flesh-and-blood, even when he did acquire a vaguely corporeal form. Rowling clearly wanted Grindelwald to feel like some sort of strongman world leader, but she has reduced the threat he possesses. Add to that, we know Voldemort is the greatest dark lord in history and Grindelwald is only second on that list.
Apart from the faults in writing, there are also real-world reasons that many fans have been put off from Fantastic Beasts. Rowling in recent years has come under fire for her alleged transphobic tweets and statements. The author has attracted the ire of trans people, activists and their allies, many of whom have been reevaluating the diversity quotient in her works. Her supporters, on the other hand, were saying that even if her opinions don’t align with those of others, she should have the right to express them.
The stars of the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, have also taken issue with her comments, albeit not directly. Although it is not official, she has become a liability for Warner Bros. This must be said, however, that she seems to have regained the studio’s confidence, even if she now has a co-screenwriter on Secrets of Dumbledore (as opposed to The Crimes of Grindelwald, for which she had the sole credit). Her name has been was prominently displayed on the trailers of Secrets of Dumbledore.
One other liability, who is now removed from the franchise, was Johnny Depp, who played Grindelwald in the first two films before being replaced by Mads Mikkelsen in the third. Accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife and fellow actor Amber Heard, he was dealing with a libel case against UK tabloid The Sun, and lost. He was immediately removed from the franchise, with the studio allowing him to save face by implying the decision to bow out was his.
Can the franchise recover and overcome these blows and shortcomings?
The short answer is, it can. But WB’s way of dealing with these issues is to bring the franchise closer to Harry Potter, cash in on the nostalgia (it is another matter that the last HP movie released just over a decade ago). So, we got to see Hogwarts in the second movie, with a version of John Williams’ iconic “Hedwig’s Theme” playing in the background. But then, it was taken too far. There was a shot or two of a young Minerva McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith in the HP movies) herding a group of students, probably in her early 20s, the year being 1927. But as per the lore established by Rowling herself, she wasn’t even born back then.
It doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. We’d been told that Dumbledore had two siblings, brother Aberforth and sister Ariana. The writers’ thinking perhaps went, “Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the troubled young man who had developed an Obscurial and whose identity reveal we have been teasing is none other than a long lost Dumbledore sibling we forgot to tell you before.”
We do not know how Fantastic Beasts can be rehabilitated (perhaps Rowling was not born to be a screenwriter? just a thought), but this doesn’t look like the best way to go about it.