As it heads into its second weekend, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” looks set to fall well short of the box-office performance of the franchise’s first installment in China, despite a number of tailor-made attempts to woo Chinese audiences.
As of mid-afternoon Friday, six days after its release, “Grindelwald” had brought in about $46.3 million in the world’s second-biggest movie market. It was beaten at the box office Wednesday and Thursday by “Venom” and comedic Chinese crime thriller “A Cool Fish,” then dropped even further, to fifth place, by 3 p.m. Friday, muscled aside by new releases “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Johnny English Strikes Again,” starring Rowan Atkinson, who has a huge following in China.
2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” took in $86 million in China – nearly double the sequel’s current take – at a time when the country had significantly fewer screens than it has now. On Wednesday and Thursday, “Grindelwald” had about 70,000 screenings per day.
J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World remains extremely popular in the Middle Kingdom, where more people are likely to recognize Harry Potter than Prince Harry as an emissary of British culture. On Douban, a key Chinese user-review site, some 127,000 reviewers gave “Grindelwald“ a respectable aggregate 7.2 rating, but many complained that the story was too convoluted, a common criticism by Western reviewers as well.
“An installment that’s totally a setup for the next; it was way too dull, and the emotional scenes awkward and wooden,” said one of the most popular Douban reviews, which gave it just two stars. “The spectacle of the beasts was not as rich or interesting as it was in the first.”
Another three-star review cautioned: “The threshold for getting into it is very high – non-fans will be totally lost, and the plot is too messy. But the special effects were very good and the sets are very cool.”
The film hasn’t quite hit home with audiences despite the introduction of a Chinese “fantastic beast”: the zouwu, based on an obscure creature mentioned in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” an ancient Chinese text full of myths and mythical geography thought to date back to the 4th century B.C.
“This is how it is described in Chinese mythology: gigantic, elephant-sized cat, five-colored. It really does take a Newt Scamander to contain and look after that beast,” Rowling said in a promotional video for “Grindelwald.” She added: “There’s a Chinese bestiary that is utterly fascinating.”
The original classical text mentions the zouwu only briefly, stating: “In Lin Country, there are rare beasts. Big as a tiger, with a multi-colored body and a tail longer than its body, it is called the Zouwu, and riding it you can go a thousand li” – an ancient unit of measurement of about a third of a mile.
Chinese fans were charmed by Hollywood’s version of the fantastical cat, with some even saying they found it so cute that they dug out dusty copies of the classical text to find the reference. Many noted the irony of Hollywood picking up on a cultural element that even most Chinese people themselves didn’t know about, with one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter, writing: “Our ancestors left us many good things that we’ve never made full use of – a shame!”
“Grindelwald’s” marketing campaign also reached out to Chinese audiences with a gorgeous China-specific poster: a Chinese ink-brush painting of the zouwu and other creatures perched in a tree, done with the “gongbi” technique known for its highly precise strokes and realism. It was displayed at the film’s Beijing premiere, stretched out over a seven-paneled screen. The artist, Zhang Chun, had also created ink-brush portraits of six creatures for the first film, which went viral in China.
Some on Western fansites have chattered about the possibility that the zouwu could take the “Beasts” franchise to China. In the first film, a creature with the French name demiguise played a prominent role, and the next film was set in Paris.
Patrick Frater contributed to this report.