When anything related to “Harry Potter” is released, it is reasonable to expect profits. The seven novels shifted 450m copies worldwide. The eight film adaptations – the most successful franchise in film history – have reaped over $7.7bn at the box office. Merchandise has added a further $7bn, the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios in Orlando has made more than $364m since opening in 2010, and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, a new play in London’s West End, is sold out for months. J.K. Rowling has become the world’s first billionaire author.
But when Rowling announced last month that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, a new movie starring Eddie Redmayne and set in the Potter world, would be the first of five films, the fans’ reactions were tepid. I am not a Potter sceptic. I cried in the cinema when Dobby died, as is only human. I received tickets to the Harry Potter Studio Tour from my parents for a recent birthday. I once dressed as Moaning Myrtle for a fancy-dress party. But even I couldn’t help agreeing with the person who tweeted Rowling directly: “5 movies? Don’t you think it’s to much? [sic]”. Another said that “two [films] would be a horrid cash-grab, but FIVE?!” Rowling defended the decision by saying that there was a “natural arc to five” and that “when you realise what story we’re *really* telling, you’ll understand that it can’t possibly fit in one movie!”
Rebooting a franchise is not a bad idea in itself. While Tolkien fans came to resent the three adaptations of “The Hobbit”, and the last, “The Battle of Five Armies” (2014), was the lowest grossing of them all, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” enjoyed remarkable success. Even though it was the seventh in a series of “Star Wars” films, it has taken more than $2bn at the box office.
But there are three big differences between that series and “Fantastic Beasts”. First, “The Force Awakens” contained both old favourites like Chewbacca and Han Solo, and interesting new characters like Rey and Finn. “Fantastic Beasts” does not. Regardless of how lovable and charming Redmayne is, the person he plays, Newt Scamander, does not feature in the original films, so fans have no meaningful relationship with him. He feels like a flimsy peg on which to hang a prequel. A film about the mysterious formative years of Albus Dumbledore would have been more enticing.
Secondly, there were ten years between “The Force Awakens” and its predecessor, “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”. Fans had time to become nostalgic, and even to have children with whom they could share their enthusiasm. The same cannot be said for “Fantastic Beasts”. “The Deathly Hallows – Part Two” was released only five years ago, and in between we’ve had all manner of Potter-related ephemera.
Thirdly, another benefit of the gap between the “Star Wars” movies was that it allowed CGI technology to catch up with the film-makers’ ambitious ideas. The visually glitchy elements of the older movies were ironed out in “The Force Awakens”. It was a more immersive and realistic experience than what had come before. The same cannot be said for “Fantastic Beasts”. Indeed, many of the most impressive visual effects from the last film – the Protego horribilis shield, the foaming stream caused when two spells meet, vaporous black shrouds screaming through the air – have simply been duplicated. The franchise relies on wonder. If audiences feel they have seen it all before, they’ll get bored quickly.
“Fantastic Beasts” also lacks a compelling villain. Voldemort, Potter’s arch enemy played by Ralph Fiennes, posed an urgent threat to wizarding civilisation. From the beginning, audiences saw the inhumanity of which he was capable. In the new film, Grindelwald is motiveless and possesses average duelling skills, and in any case appears only briefly. For him to have any significance whatsoever, fans will need to remember his momentary appearances in the previous films. This does not feel, as the Potter stories do, like a universal battle of good and evil. There is no sense of a grand narrative, or where the characters are headed. Watching Redmayne wrestle a Niffler for the fifth time (adorable and hilarious as the kleptomaniac platypus is), one could be forgiven for thinking that the writers didn’t know where they were going either.
Prequels and sequels work best when fans are left with a sense of the unanswered. Few could have felt this when the last film concluded with the now-adult Harry, with salt-and-pepper hair and paunch, packing his young son Albus Severus off to Hogwarts for the first time. It seems that even the greediest of Potterheads are in danger of losing their appetites.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in cinemas now