Expectations were high when Warner Bros. first announced the expansion of the Wizarding World with the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise, which aimed to tell a new story set decades before the events of “Harry Potter” in the same universe. But nearly six years after the release of the first film in the series, “Fantastic Beasts” could potentially come to an unceremonious end as a result of headaches over multiple actors in the series and author J.K. Rowling herself, as well as an underwhelming fan response to the films as a whole.
First announced in 2013, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” marked Rowling’s debut as a screenwriter after being heavily involved in the eight-film “Harry Potter” adaptation, and swapped Potter out as the protagonist for magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne).
The draw of “Fantastic Beasts” was the opportunity to tell a Wizarding World story about adults in contrast to the kid-POV nature of “Harry Potter.” The 1926-set first film introduced a new ensemble cast that included Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Ezra Miller, with Colin Farrell’s villainous character revealed to be the dastardly (and iconic) villain Gellert Grindelwald — in the final moments of the film, Farrell’s character removes a charm and reveals himself to be Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp.
That plot twist was immediately met with, well, passionate opinions as the release of “Fantastic Beasts” came months after Amber Heard filed for divorce from Depp alleging that he was “verbally and physically abusive” in their relationship.
Rowling and the “Fantastic Beasts” filmmakers defended Depp’s casting as Grindelwald, as the actor was primed to take a leading role in the second film “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” The author released a statement in 2017 expressing support for Depp, saying, “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.”
The reaction to Depp’s casting was the first but far from the last worry the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise would face.
Reviews for the first film were pleasant enough, and while the $800 million gross worldwide was a few hundred million lower than the recent “Harry Potter” films, there was room for growth as the franchise continued. After all, Rowling and director David Yates had made clear their plan was to tell this “Fantastic Beasts” story in a planned five-film franchise.
But when “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” was released in 2019, the film received the worst reviews in the history of the “Potter” franchise and grossed only $159 million domestic – lower than the $234 million domestic gross of the first film, and a franchise low for the Wizarding World overall. Even the international box office was lackluster, with the worldwide total of “Fantastic Beasts 2” coming in at $654 million.
The hits kept coming. A month after “The Crimes of Grindelwald” hit theaters, Rowling – a beloved figure in fans’ eyes – came under fire for the first of what would be many controversial statements about sex and gender identity. Stars of the “Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” franchise denounced Rowling’s comments and came to the defense of the transgender community, but Rowling’s ties to the franchise would continue.
Rowling had a screenplay for the third “Fantastic Beasts” movie in the works when “Crimes of Grindelwald” was released, but after the second film underperformed, Warner Bros. enlisted Steve Kloves – who wrote the screenplays for all but one of the “Potter” films and worked closely with Rowling – to rework and co-write the screenplay for what would be called “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”
As production was finally gearing up on “Dumbledore” (once again under the direction of David Yates), Depp’s troubles came to a head. Depp was in the midst of a much-publicized libel case against the British publication The Sun, which he claimed damaged his career by calling him a “wife-beater.” The actor said that Warner Bros. asked him to resign from the franchise rather than continue on in the Grindelwald role following the case. Mads Mikkelsen stepped in as his replacement and filming on “Fantastic Beasts 3” continued with a new Big Bad.
Cast problems continued, however, this time with Ezra Miller. Days before the world premiere of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” in London, Miller was arrested for disorderly conduct in Hawaii. Shortly after making bail, a couple in Hawaii filed a restraining order against Miller, accusing the actor of assault, although the order was later dropped.
Reviews for “The Secrets of Dumbledore” are more positive than the last installment, but the film still sits as a “rotten” 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.
While “Fantastic Beasts” was launched as a planned five-film franchise, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” ends in a surprisingly conclusive manner. Almost as if the script had been retooled to ensure that, if the franchise needs to be cut off, this could serve as a definitive endpoint while also leaving room for more films should it prove to be a hit. Warner Bros. has not officially announced a further sequel, but it’s not hard to imagine “The Secrets of Dumbledore” serving as the end of the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise. At least in this iteration.
That’s not to say the Wizarding World franchise is over. Far from it. A 20th-anniversary reunion special for the “Harry Potter” cast debuted to much fanfare on HBO Max in December, and the “Potter” films continue to be in heavy rotation on cable on Syfy and USA. Moreover, the Wizarding World has a significant (and heavily invested) presence in the Universal Studios theme parks in Florida, California, and Japan, and one of the lands in Universal Orlando’s newest theme park Epic Universe is rumored to be loosely themed to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
So what happens next? One industry insider told TheWrap they think Warner Bros. might rethink those five-film plans. “I think they’ll recalibrate and do a fourth film, although not for a bit, and then conclude it, one film short than the originally announced five films,” this insider predicted. The same insider also noted the hypocrisy behind declaring the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise a failure. “The media will state that ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is failing, yet state that a film like ‘Dune’ is a big success, despite all financial data stating to the contrary. And ‘Dune’ and Legendary could only dream of the box office ‘Fantastic Beasts’ continues to generate (which is obviously underwhelming).”
Indeed, “Dune” (also released by Warner Bros.) grossed $400 million worldwide and is getting a sequel, although the film also garnered critical acclaim and won six Oscars. And, to be frank, “Dune” wasn’t built on the foundation of another successful franchise, so the stakes weren’t as high.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is set to open to around $40 million, which would be a lower opening weekend than the past two “Fantastic Beasts” movies and a franchise-low for the “Harry Potter” series as a whole.
Whether the franchise continues as planned, changes directions or is scuttled altogether, one thing is clear: the Wizarding World is still very much alive. In what way, shape or form it continues is anyone’s guess at this point. But it will continue.
Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this story.