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Posts Tagged ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’

It’s always an interesting moment when power and success which once seemed limitless suddenly comes up against a non-negotiable limit; when implacable might is firmly and unexpectedly put in its place. This rarely happens in the world of the blockbuster franchise – the major studios rely on these to keep going, so their progression forms part of the business-plan years in advance. Disney’s decision to suspend their yearly production of Star Wars movies sent a shockwave round the world, at least that of those people who take an interest in such things – the whole reason Disney had bought the franchise in the first place was that it seemed like an infallible license to print money.

I rather get the impression that Warner Brothers are having a similar experience when it comes to the whole Harry Potter/Wizarding World franchise. The comparison seems to me to be a valid one, as one of the few figures who must be able to understand what it feels like to be JK Rowling is George Lucas: the popularity of Star Wars amongst the hard-core fanbase has never appreciably wavered, but Lucas – who, and I feel the need to remind people of this occasionally, is the originator of the whole concept – was for a while being mocked and scorned and treated with casual contempt by people who clearly loved much of his work. No-one loves something quite as much as its most dedicated fans, obviously – but what is also true is that no-one has the same capacity for sheer hatred as a fan.

Which brings us back to the odd position of JK Rowling. If anything she is in a tougher bind than Lucas ever was: Lucas was castigated by his erstwhile fans for the understandable reason that they didn’t think the later films were very good. Much of Potter fandom’s beef with Rowling has nothing to do with the quality of her actual work as a writer of fiction, but is ideological in nature. There’s no arguing with ideology, particularly the fierce and uncompromising kind that Rowling has found herself on the wrong side of, hence attempts at what looks very like a coup: an attempt to wrest control of the Potter/Wizarding franchise away from Rowling and place it with the people who supposedly understand it best – the most dedicated fans, of course.

Rowling’s travails are fairly well-known, but some of this is taking place a distance down the rabbit-hole – so why should it have any effect on the current big-screen incarnation of the series, the Fantastic Beasts franchise? Well, it was always fairly obvious that a film series based on the back-story of some of the characters from the novels and their movie adaptations was going to be reliant on the goodwill of the hard-core Potter fanbase to succeed – but here again perhaps we are getting things backward. The Fantastic Beasts series only exists because it looked like there was a huge built-in audience for it. Six or seven years ago it appeared to be the safest of safe bets.

These days, of course, it looks like a distinctly iffy proposition. Quite apart from the controversy surrounding Rowling – whose name has greatly dwindled in prominence on the publicity material as a result – the series has also had to cope with the fact that de facto star Johnny Depp has had troubles of his own and been asked to leave the franchise as a result, while another key member of the cast got themselves arrested (and not for the first time) just the other day. The projected series of five films may be looking at a sooner-than-anticipated termination.

Once you start looking at the new movie – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, directed (as usual) by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates – with the idea in mind that it represents a franchise which is taking on water, you can’t help spotting sign after sign that something is amiss. It’s there in the way that Mads Mikkelsen has been parachuted in to replace Depp without the character’s change of appearance being addressed or referred to (this might have been less of an issue if this wasn’t effectively the third Grindelwald in three movies), it’s there in the strange, arcane, convoluted backstory of some of the characters – it’s vital to the plot, but never properly articulated – it’s there in the structure of the piece, which seems to be built around long, lavish, dialogue-free set-pieces which are stately rather than thrilling. It’s even there in the credits, which open a chink into a peculiar world of fine legal points and seemingly desperate attempts to cling onto as much credit as possible – ‘Screenplay by JK Rowling and Steve Kloves, based on a screenplay by JK Rowling’.

It would be nice to say that Kloves’ involvement has resulted in a movie with a bit more tangible story to it than the previous one. But we’re talking about a marginal improvement. Some time after the last movie, evil wizard Grindelwald is still set on his plan to become undisputed leader of the world’s magical community and bring about a fairly stringent programme of ethnic cleansing, directed at the non-magical population. (Some of this takes place in Germany in the 1930s, presumably because you just can’t be too on-the-nose sometimes.) In the Harry Potter books, the leadership position was apparently known as ‘Supreme Mugwump’ but they keep quiet about the exact title here, presumably because they’re gunning for a more mature tone.

Out to stop Grindelwald is his former boyfriend Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) – at least, he is if you’re not watching the film in one of those nations which has insisted on cutting the LGBT plot elements – but they are sort of magical blood brothers which stops them from confronting each other directly. And so Dumbledore is forced to rely on a selection of characters, some of whom we have seen in previous films, and some of whom we haven’t (at least, if we have, they made no impression on your correspondent) – Eddie Redmayne’s gratingly mannered magical naturalist, various magical cops and other experts, and a baker from New York with no actual magical skills.

Dumbledore’s plan is to defeat Grindelwald’s precognesis by doing things which are deliberately confusing and contradictory – I’m sure a smart cookie like you can see the problem with this kind of scheme in a film which is already densely packed with back-story and baggage from the previous two episodes. It all ends up revolving around a trip to Bhutan, Dumbledore’s family history, and something called a ‘chillun’ which looks like a cross between Bambi and a stegosaurus.

Needless to say all of this transpires over a murderously long running-time. Now, I must say again that this is a very good-looking film with some decent performances in it – Mikkelsen in particular makes the best of what’s arguably a bit of a hospital pass – and the very occasional surprising moment (for example, Peter Simonischek, star of Toni Erdmann, gets a brief cameo). But Rowling still seems to be writing long and densely-plotted novels, rather than screenplays, and doesn’t do nearly enough to make the piece accessible to non-fans of this setting.

That’s the thing about this film, and Fantastic Beasts in general – they’re not awful, they’re not stupid, they’re not offensive in any way – although some might argue that doing an allegory for the rise of Hitler in this particular context was possibly inappropriate, to put it mildly. Aesthetically and artistically they are frequently pleasing. But unless you’re really, really committed to Rowling’s world they’re just not that interesting. Nothing commands your attention and drags you in, nothing ever actually surprises you.

Well – as the film finally came to a close, I was actually pleasantly surprised when the plot showed every sign of, if not actually being resolved, certainly being brought to a point where there were no major loose ends. The jury is still out on whether Fantastic Beasts 4 and 5 ever get made, depending on box office for this one, but it looks very much like Warner Brothers are getting ready to quit while these films still make a profit. Part of me would regret that, because in a way these films are certainly weirder and more singular than the typical Hollywood franchise movie, but then again it does look like JK Rowling’s days of having creative carte blanche are over. But I can’t honestly say there is any sign that not having further instalments would in any way impoverish our culture.

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