The Number One Movie in America: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
By Sean Collier
March 20, 2020
The two “Fantastic Beasts” movies have, by nearly every measure, performed worse than every single “Harry Potter” movie.
Nominally, these films are all part of the same series. A sharp divide exists between the eight adventures of Hermione and her friends (she’s our real hero, after all) and the two-and-counting appearances of Newt Scamander. The newer films take place decades before the “Harry Potter” series, and (for the most part) occur a full continent away, in an America that only passingly even existed in J.K. Rowling’s book series.
The enduring popularity of the Wizarding World fandom prevented either “Fantastic Beasts” film from becoming an out-and-out flop; the first film in the prequel series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” earned a hearty $234 million on domestic screens, good enough to become the 12th highest-grossing film of 2016.
That tally does not, however, eclipse even the lowest-grossing “Harry Potter” film. That dubious honor goes to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” which earned $262 million upon its 2002 release, outgrossing “Fantastic Beasts” by more than $25 million, even with a 14-year inflation bump for the latter film. The “Fantastic Beasts” sequel, subtitled “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” fared worse, finishing just shy of $160 million.
The same pattern holds for critical response; every “Potter” outdid both “Beasts.” The lowest Tomatometer score for a Potter film is the still-respectable 77% mark, for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1.” The score for “Fantastic Beasts” is 74% — which is double the 37% approval for “Crimes of Grindelwald.”
So: Where did all the Potterheads go?
The critical error may be one of setting. The 1920s New York of “Fantastic Beasts” is handsome, well designed and vivid; it is not, however, what Wizarding World fans are into. In many respects, the main character of the Potter films isn’t Harry himself — or, with apologies to an earlier paragraph, Hermione — but rather Hogwarts and its environs. The setting is the thing; there’s a reason that Hot Topic still says so many “Waiting on My Letter to Hogwarts” t-shirts. It’s Harry’s world — his specific world, not the capitalized Wizarding World writ large — that fans want to visit.
In this way, “Fantastic Beasts” was a few steps behind, right out of the gate. That’s something of a shame, because there’s plenty to like about the film. The central quartet — Eddie Redmayne as Scamander, Dan Fogler as hapless muggle (sorry, no-maj) baker Jacob Kowalski, Katherine Waterston as beleaguered auror Tina Goldstein and Alison Sudol as her charming, semi-psychic sister, Queenie — are an excellent, compelling group. All of the action around Newt’s missing beasts is enjoyable, and many of the creatures (more Nifflers, please) are irresistible.
The film is muddy, however. A long, bleak and convoluted plot line — about a powerful young wizard trapped in an anti-magic society and the sinister forces looking to exploit him — is given more prominence than it should (a problem which grows exponentially larger in the second film). The film also dabbles in clunky symbolism and occasional stereotype, two flaws which have become Rowling’s albatrosses.
Still: “Fantastic Beasts” is a good film, enjoyable if long and possessing measurable quantities of the Wizarding World charm. Such qualities may be absent in the second chapter; perhaps the already-delayed third will return the series to something more befitting the Potter name.
At least “Fantastic Beasts” has one victory to claim over its eight more successful forebears: It is, to date, the only Wizarding World picture to win an Oscar, earning lauded designer Colleen Atwood a fourth award for Costume Design.
So the film let us down a bit, but boy, those outfits were sharp, eh?
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since the late 1970s. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Two gigantic movie studios go to war over which one gets to render uncanny, computer-animated insects.