Graham: Underwhelming ‘Beasts’ opening raises questions

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ failed to do ‘Harry Potter’ numbers at the box office. Now what?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

People knew where to find “Fantastic Beasts.” They just didn’t care to look for them.

OK, that’s not entirely fair. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opened at No. 1 at the box office last weekend, pulling in $74.4 million.

But that figure was less robust than its cautious $80 million projection and is not the franchise starter Warner Bros. was hoping for with its ambitious extension of the “Harry Potter” universe.

What it means for the future of “Beasts” — for which four sequels have already been announced — remains to be seen. If “Harry Potter” is a band, “Fantastic Beasts” is the solo album from the bassist that people sampled out of curiosity. But will they come back for albums two, three, four and five?

The film’s disappointing opening is proof that spinning off new properties from successful franchises is harder than it looks. It also shows building a glitzy new cinematic universe isn’t an easy fix to Hollywood’s current sequel fatigue problem, which this year has seen follow-ups to “Neighbors,” “Jack Reacher,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Divergent,” to name a few, fall sharply from their predecessors.

In 2016, the buzzwords “Cinematic Universe” have been inescapable. There are the Marvel movies, which continued to roll along with “Captain America: Civil War” (the year’s second-highest grossing movie, with $408 million) and “Doctor Strange” ($183 million and counting). The DC Comics Universe has been troubled critically, but successful commercially, with “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” ($330 million) and “Suicide Squad” ($325 million) out-earning their venomous reviews. And “Star Wars” is readying its first big spinoff with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which opens Dec. 16.

The words “Star Wars” alone should guarantee a massive opening for “Rogue One.” But a week ago, people would have said the same thing about “Harry Potter.” So maybe those expectations for “Rogue One” should be tempered, at least slightly.

So what happened with “Fantastic Beasts?” Well, for one, it’s tough to build on the “Harry Potter” universe without Harry Potter himself. “Fantastic Beasts’” opening was weaker than all eight “Harry Potter” films, which peaked with the $169 million opening of the final film and hit their low with the $77.1 million opening of 2007’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” (Adjusted for inflation, that $77.1 million would have been about $90 million in today’s dollars.)

“Beasts” opened significantly lower than the “Hunger Games” sequels, which for the last three years hit theaters on the same November weekend. It was also outpaced by the $84.6 million bow of the first “Hobbit” film, which like “Fantastic Beasts” placed a group of new characters in a familiar-but-different setting. (The grosses for the second and third “Hobbit” films dropped off from the first, a pattern subsequent “Beasts” films may follow.)

The opening of “Beasts” made it the year’s 10th-biggest opener, just behind “Zootopia,” which opened with $75 million in March. With several big films still on deck, including the animated musical “Sing,” “Rogue One” and this weekend’s “Moana,” “Beasts” won’t be positioned in the year’s Top 10 for long.

The biggest problem with “Fantastic Beasts” is “Fantastic Beasts” itself. The film deserves a gold star for production value and its stunning, rich recreation of 1920s New York. But everything else in it feels flat: Its characters, led by tic-prone annoyance factory Eddie Redmayne; its needlessly overcomplicated plot; and those “Beasts” of the title, which are unimpressively CGI’d and rank as decidedly less than fantastic. (One looks suspiciously like a knock-off of Baby Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”)

For a world built on magic, the film felt labored. An experience like “Fantastic Beasts” should sweep you up, but instead it weighs you down. Perhaps its underwhelming opening is evidence of the wising up of audiences, who are tired of being fed the same thing in different packaging.

The news isn’t all bad for “Beasts.” Worldwide it has grossed more than $250 million, which recoups its reported $180 million budget. But its road is bumpier than expected, which may give pause to those brainstorming the next fantastic cinematic universes and where to find them.

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