“Mulan” Finally Makes Disney Live-Action Remakes Worth It.

Far and away the best of a slew of recent live-action remakes of animated Disney classics, Mulan blends the fantastical whimsy and stylized beauty of the 1998 film with the epic, somber maturity of the ancient Chinese ballad of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), finding its balance in a delicate sweet spot that it has difficulty maintaining the whole way through – but it manages, thanks to Niki Caro’s direction and an extraordinary ensemble cast: and in several instances it doesn’t just stay on par with 1998’s Mulan, but dares to soar above and beyond the constraints from which other live-action remakes have suffered. In only a few places does this version of the story falter or fall behind its predecessor.

Mulan
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Nostalgia (and the ways in which it can be exploited for money) has been both the reason why these live-action remakes continue to be made, and also why they often feel watered-down and uninteresting next to their animated counterparts. Afraid to change too much of the “original” stories (I put original in quotes because most of Disney’s classic fairytales are just that; adaptations of far older fairytales), the directors of these remakes choose to simply rearrange plot points inoffensively, and/or bloat the films’ runtimes with filler material: exposition, explanations and lengthy justifications for plot holes in the animated films, and new musical numbers that (with a few exceptions) feel like lackluster imitations of the real thing: though that last problem is made less noticeable when even the live-action recreations of the original songs are usually lackluster imitations (looking at you, the entire soundtrack of 2019’s The Lion King). Mulan, however, never suffers from these problems, because director Niki Caro has made the bold and commendable decision not to lean on nostalgia so heavily, but instead to weave the Chinese source material and the Disney animated film into one beautiful amalgamation of the two that feels like the truest version of the story yet. This decision necessitates removing entire sections of the animated film. Several major characters have been cut out entirely. The animal sidekicks and their hijinks are absent. The songs have been dropped. And most importantly, the tone of the story has changed entirely: Mulan was always one of the funniest, zaniest Disney movies, but this version feels more like an accessible, family-friendly tribute to the wuxia genre’s greatest hits, particularly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In retrospect it’s obvious that, while the animated Mulan remains my personal favorite version of the story and my favorite Disney animated movie, this is how the legend of Mulan deserved to be told all along: as a war film with dark, adult themes, masterfully choreographed action scenes, and beautiful, luxurious imagery.

As for Mulan herself, the woman who disguised herself as a male soldier to take her father’s place in battle is a national heroine in China, and it’s no secret that Chinese audiences never liked how she was written in the animated film. This time around, Liu Yifei embodies a quieter, more reserved version of the character, who is hiding her inner power from herself and her family. But the key aspects of Mulan’s personality have not been changed: she is still a strong-willed woman endeavoring to carve out a place for herself in a world dominated by an unwavering patriarchy. If anything, these aspects have only been emphasized through the way the story has changed.

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Gong Li’s character, the mysterious and absolutely stunning sorceress Xianniang, balances out Mulan’s storyline with her own sad, cautionary tale. Like Mulan, she is a woman with aspirations and ambitions, but unlike Mulan, she has already fully embraced herself and her truth before the story opens; and it is for that reason that she now finds herself an unwanted outcast on the fringe of society, reviled even by her allies, who feels compelled to try and warn Mulan of the dangers she will face if she ever tries to upset the “natural” order of things. Her complex relationship with Mulan forms the film’s emotional core, and, side-note, has already sparked substantial interest from members of the LGBTQ+ community who have pointed out that, in the original ballad, the character of Xianniang is Mulan’s best friend and maybe love interest. There’s hints of that chemistry in their interactions here, although Mulan has a more explicitly romantic relationship (in fact, too explicit for some Chinese audiences) with a new male character named Honghui (Yoson An), a soldier in her regiment.

Throughout the film, a great deal of the plot revolves around Mulan trying to unlock her qi, an internal life-force that can give her gravity-defying acrobatic and martial arts skills, if only she can learn to control it. Xianniang is already in touch with her own qi, though she has been using it for evil for many years. It is this qi which allows both women to shine most brilliantly in their numerous action scenes, which – thankfully – have not all been revealed in the trailers. Xianniang, in particular, has a lot of tricks and surprises up her long, flowing silk sleeves (which themselves double as weapons designed for quick and easy strangulation of all enemies within about a ten-foot radius).

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The animated Mulan had numerous story issues, but none was bigger than the problem with its villain, the Hun leader Shan Yu: who was definitely one of Disney’s most terrifying and threatening villains, but maybe not one of the studio’s most well-written or dynamic. That problem has been solved. The duo of Rouran warlord Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xianniang, and the bond of mutual distrust between the two is very well-written. Bori Khan isn’t quite as menacing as his animated counterpart, but he has a much cooler look, a much more personal motive, and a much more compelling performance. Although in the trailers you’ve seen him and Xianniang working together, the movie establishes early on that their pairing is necessary for both to achieve victory, but is by no means motivated by any strong affection for the other. I absolutely love characters who have separate needs and wants, so this development worked for me.

There are several other standouts in the cast who make so much of their roles that they’ve instantly surpassed the animated versions of their characters. Mulan’s father, war veteran Hua Tzo (Tzi Ma), has a much larger role to play in the story, and his character’s kindness and genuine love and respect for his daughters made me very happy to see: I particularly enjoyed watching his internal conflict play out, as he tried to reconcile Mulan’s unconventional dreams with the more strict, uptight wishes of his community and culture. The village matchmaker, no longer a grotesque caricature, has a slightly expanded role and even gets a moment of payoff to her character arc that I never knew she needed. And The Emperor (Jet Li), while no longer charming or sassy, is again less of a caricature and more of an actual character, who even gets to participate in the third act battle. I did miss the antics of the Hua family’s matriarch, Grandmother Fa, but I never once found myself bemoaning the loss of the diminutive dragon Mushu or the lucky Cricket Cri-Kee (oddly, the lucky cricket does show up in a way, but not how you might expect). Mulan has gained a new animal guardian: a majestic Phoenix, which follows her on her journey. It’s not a very talkative bird, but it is very pretty to look at, and it feels much more appropriate with the tone of this movie.

Mulan
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There are only two major instances where the 2020 film stumbles in comparison to the 1998 film. Neither one is a spoiler (unless you don’t know anything about the animated Mulan), so I can share both. The first is the iconic scene where Mulan dons her disguise and flees her home to join the army: in the animated film, this scene is set to a pounding, exhilarating piece of music, and is loaded with striking, memorable imagery: the rain and the lightning making bold silhouettes, the reflective sword-blade slicing Mulan’s hair, Mulan’s father stumbling in the mud and the bejeweled comb flying from his hand. In this version, it’s all over in a matter of moments, and lacks all of that potent symbolism. In fact, many of the iconic shots and symbols of the animated movie are gone completely; however, in most instances they have been replaced by visual cues that are almost as compelling. To name a few: a sprig of flower blossoms discreetly hiding Mulan from view as she bathes in a lake; droplets of blood falling ominously from one of Xianniang’s wounded claws during a fight; a lone soldier descending an unbelievably long flight of stairs in the Imperial City; and a number of extraordinary uses of fabric, such as Mulan twirling in purple silk, a black scarf untwisting around Bori Khan’s face and being caught in a desert wind, Xianniang’s deadly sleeves swirling heavily through the smoke of battle. None of them, however, match the power of a dead girl’s doll resting in the snow, or a flower blooming in adversity.

The second misstep is the pacing. This is a movie that needed to be much longer than it ended up being. The first thirty minutes fly along far too quickly, barely giving us any time to indulge in the opulent Hua family household or explore the dynamic of their peaceful village before we’re whisked off to war. Throughout the film, this continues to be a problem: the entire story feels rushed right up until the third act. A large part of why that is has to do with the lack of songs, because it’s important to remember that in the animated film, songs don’t just act as cheerful interludes between plot points – they literally are plot points. And if you’re going to remove them entirely, you can’t just leave blank spaces where they used to be: you need to do the work to replace them. This is done most effectively with You’ll Bring Honor To Us All, which is effectively supplanted with nuanced dialogue and a sprinkling of exposition that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or forced. But nowhere is it more badly handled than with A Girl Worth Fighting For: without that song, it’s impossible for the film to effectively recreate that shocking transition from the animated film where the untested Imperial army suddenly, unexpectedly, runs into the site of a brutal massacre. And without Reflection, we never get to fully understand Mulan’s motivations from her own point of view – and because we spend hardly any time in her village, that scene isn’t replaced by anything, so she sets out to war before we’ve even had time to understand why. Earlier in this review I criticized the remakes that bloat the story with filler material: but I’m not going to let this one off the hook because it does the opposite and subtracts important story beats without putting anything in their place.

Mulan
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But even with what feels like so little time, Mulan still captivates the heart and captures the eyes’ undivided attention, and it left me feeling satisfied – and wanting more. Sign me up for the next movie! Even though this remake doesn’t surpass the animated movie, it’s the first Disney live-action remake that feels justified: as if it’s actually taking steps toward trying out new things and making exciting creative choices…not all of which pay off entirely, but all of which feel intentional.

Rating: 8.5/10

Marvel Developing An “Agents Of Atlas” Adaptation!

Some day, Marvel will have to run out of new content to adapt to the big (or small) screen: some day, but today is not that day. Today, we have learned that the studio is planning to take yet another obscure group of characters from their seemingly endless roster and transform them overnight into pop culture phenomenons. This means that not only do we have Black Widow, Eternals, Falcon And The Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki, Shang-Chi, Doctor Strange 2, What If, Thor: Love And Thunder, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Spider-Man 3, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Ant-Man 3, Black Panther 2, Blade, Captain Marvel 2, Guardians Of The Galaxy 3, Deadpool 3, a possible Secret Invasion Disney+ series, and future Fantastic Four and X-Men properties to look forward to (and if I forgot any others, please let me know in the comments), but we can now possibly add Agents Of Atlas to the list.

Marvel Developing An "Agents Of Atlas" Adaptation! 1
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You may not know the Agents of Atlas, which is why I’m here to inform you that they are, in fact, quite an interesting and diverse group of characters who certainly seem like a good fit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Founded, in the comics, by S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jimmy Woo (played in the MCU by Randall Parks), the team of Asian superheroes includes a wide variety of unique characters. The line-up changes from time to time, but a prominent member has always been Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, who will make his debut next year in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings – which, intriguingly, was just today confirmed to be filming scenes in San Francisco, where the Agents of Atlas have their roots, and where Jimmy Woo is already known to operate, as seen in the Ant-Man films. It’s thus safe to assume that an Agents of Atlas property would directly tie-in to events in the Shang-Chi origin story, as the initial report indicates.

It’s unclear whether Agents Of Atlas would end up in theaters or on Disney+, but I’m betting the team will show up first on the small screen before graduating to the big, probably in a Shang-Chi sequel. The group will probably include all its most popular members from the comics, including Shang-Chi; Jimmy Woo; Amadeus Cho, the Korean-American Hulk; Aero, a wind-manipulating Chinese woman; Crescent and Io, a South Korean girl and a giant glowing blue magic bear; Wave, a Filipina heroine with control over water; and Luna Snow, a South Korean K-Pop singer with ice powers (Silk, another important member of the team, is a little less likely since she’s a Spider-Man supporting character and thus jointly-owned by Sony). All of these characters have the potential to be really awesome in the MCU.

So what do you think? Are the Agents of Atlas something you want to see in the MCU or not? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

“Mulan” Final Trailer Review!

In the final trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic Mulan, our fearless heroine shares the spotlight with two new characters – both villains. While one of the biggest complaints about the original film was that Hun leader Shan Yu was a weak, underwritten antagonist, the same probably won’t be said of this new and (hopefully!) improved version, where the two villains standing in Mulan’s way both look to be fully fleshed-out, compelling, and absolutely terrifying characters.

Bori Khan is the black-scarfed leader of the attacking northerners who, in this film, stand in for the Huns from the 1998 film. Though I already sensed a parallel between Mulan and the Ang Lee classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this trailer makes that parallel even clearer by showing Khan leaping over the rooftops of the Imperial City with a host of cloaked henchmen behind him, some of them even flying or walking straight up walls – this is exactly the sort of action that I wanted to see from this movie, and I can’t believe we’re actually getting it. But thankfully, Mulan herself is equipped with the same high-flying fighting skills, which will allow her to take on Khan’s army as an equal.

But her fight for equality has made her another enemy: the ambitious sorceress Xian Lang, whose magical abilities (including the power to shape-shift) has made her Bori Khan’s greatest ally in his war against China. This new trailer hints that Bori Khan’s motivations are personal – he mentions vengeance against his father’s killers – but Xian Lang’s destiny seems a bit grander: she can briefly be seen ascending to the Emperor’s throne in a resplendent golden gown, and challenging Mulan in the Imperial Palace. Her relationship with the heroine looks to be pretty complex, and could be a strong thematic core for the film – at one point she scorns Mulan for “pretending to be something you’re not”, while later she seems to begrudgingly praise her, even smiling as she calls Mulan “a warrior”. Portrayed by Chinese screen queen Gong Li, the witch looks like a very cool new addition to the cast.

Jet Li, who plays the revered Emperor of China, also gets a single line in this trailer – the first time we’ve heard him speak in the role. Li, an iconic martial-arts star, hasn’t been seen doing any fighting in the film just yet, but I hope he gets to move from his golden throne at some point.

All in all, this movie still looks amazing – more so now than it ever has: it’s got intense action scenes, nuanced drama, high stakes, and beautiful cinematography. If you’re still upset that there’s no comedic relief dragon or songs, well, I don’t know what to say at this point. Are the orchestral arrangements for “Reflection” not good enough for you? Is that stunning phoenix a joke to you? I mean, come on, people! Mulan looks like the best Disney live-action remake to date, and I can’t wait to see it.

Trailer Rating: 9.5/10

“Mulan” Trailer Review!

There’s a lot of people who don’t like the direction this film is going in. The live-action remake of Disney animated classic Mulan is, indeed, shaping up to be very different from the story that most Western audiences are probably accustomed to: no wise-cracking dragon, no flashy musical numbers, plus a darker, more atmospheric tone. It’s almost an entirely new movie. Now, you all know how much I love the original Mulan – that movie is very special to me, and I love it as it is.

But at the same time, I have to admit that this Mulan looks…better. At the very least, it looks like the best live-action remake Disney has done yet. At best, it looks like a Best Picture nominee (just so you know, I’m not kidding about that).

This version of Mulan is clearly borrowing a lot from the style and story of martial arts classics such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which features a similar story of a young woman who escapes from an arranged marriage to seek a life of adventure. There’s even a whole bunch of fancy wire-work action scenes in the trailer, something I am ecstatic about: my personal favorite example has to be when our villains, Bori Khan and his army of Hun invaders, literally jump from horseback onto the sides of the Great Wall of China and proceed to run straight up the wall. Khan is allied with a powerful witch, played by Chinese screen legend Gong Li, who is like this movie’s version of the Jade Fox – and though we were all worried about the idea of a new antagonist, her character looks like one of the highlights of the film: she’s decked out in one of the most beautiful outfits I’ve ever seen onscreen, and she has bird talons for hands. Like the Jade Fox, she’s also merciless and brutal: I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulan becomes the first PG-13 Disney Princess movie.

The trailer beautifully showcases the film’s majesty – while the original Mulan was largely comedic, this version is more beautiful and elegant: again, very much like Crouching Tiger. While it’s still very clearly built from a story we all know and love, this film also looks like it’s taking more risks than the live-action Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King – combined. In each of those cases, the filmmakers were tentative about adding new elements to the story, or removing classic characters, songs, etc. Director Niki Caro clearly doesn’t have that problem, nor should she. Instead of trying to work around the constraints of the original film, Caro is going to tell her own story – and she’s going to tell it her own way. She’s not going to try and shove Mushu in there just to please fans, because that wouldn’t work in the story she’s telling. She’s not going to pause the movie to throw in a couple of songs, because her movie doesn’t have time for them (though she does use instrumental versions of the classic songs such as Reflection). That sort of bravery should be respected and admired, especially at a time when filmmakers (especially for franchise properties) are being told not to break with tradition or disregard the “nostalgia factor”. And when filmmakers do rebel, they get torn to pieces – look at what happened to Rian Johnson after he dared to tell a radically new Star Wars story in The Last Jedi. Don’t let that happen to Caro, and Mulan.

"Mulan" Trailer Review! 2
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Clearly, I’m impassioned, and I hope that many people are – this movie looks so brilliant, just from this teaser trailer, that I want to see it succeed in every way. I want to see it cross the billion-dollar mark at the box-office; I want it to be nominated for Oscars. I want it to bring honor to us all.

Trailer Rating: 10/10

Shang-Chi’s Ten Rings – What Are They?

It’s theorizing time! I’m not always an expert at this sort of thing (I tend to have flashes of what I think could be an interesting idea, but…well, we’ll get to that), but I’m mainly writing this post so you – and I – can understand better one of the more intriguing developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the unveiling of the long-anticipated villain, The Mandarin, and his shadowy terrorist organization; the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi's Ten Rings - What Are They? 3
marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com

Well, them too – mainly we’ll be talking about the literal ten rings, what they are, what they can do, whether we’ll see them used as frequent plot devices like the Infinity Stones were (the proper term for an object in a film/book that is used as a plot device, such as Marvel’s Tesseract, is a MacGuffin: bear that in mind).

Let’s start with a recap of what we know: The Mandarin, one of Marvel’s most enigmatic villains, will finally appear in the upcoming film Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, probably filling the role of Shang-Chi’s villainous father from the comics: Fu Manchu. The Mandarin is traditionally an Iron Man villain, and has indeed already been connected with Iron Man in the MCU – members of his terrorist organization kidnapped Tony Stark all the way back in the very first Marvel Studios film. But Stark never actually got a showdown with the mastermind himself – instead, he was surprised to learn that the man he had believed to be The Mandarin was actually just a regular guy (well, if you can call Ben Kingsley a regular guy) who had rather inadvertently had to adopt the moniker before becoming a puppet for an entirely different terrorist group. Needless to say, the Mandarin’s followers weren’t too happy with this guy pretending to be their criminal warlord, so they broke him out of prison after the events of Iron Man 3 and brought him face to face with the real Mandarin, someone we’ve never actually seen onscreen. And that was the last we’ve heard from The Mandarin or the Ten Rings, except for one brief encounter in the first Ant-Man movie, where Scott Lang battled a mercenary working for the organization. Since then, the group has apparently gone underground. But someone (or something…) is going to bring them back to the forefront of the MCU in 2021, clearly, so what can it be?

Well, to explain that, we have to look at the Ten Rings themselves – and I’m not talking about the terrorists anymore, I’m talking about the ten rings; like, rings you wear on your fingers, those kinds of rings. The Ten Rings (the terrorists) will probably be very important to the story of Shang-Chi’s solo movie, but I highly doubt they’re the Ten Rings being referenced in the film’s title – because the Ten Rings, while very mysterious, aren’t exactly legendary: the ten rings, on the other hand…well, those are.

I feel like this post is going to get very confusing. Warning to all future Marvel criminal masterminds: please don’t name your business after your jewelry – it just makes things a lot more complicated than they need to be. Thanks.

Anyway, the Mandarin’s ten rings are almost mythical, and very nearly divine. In the comics, these ten devices were created by a race of aliens known as the Makluans: they are weapons, endowed with the incorporeal spirits of ancient cosmic warriors and heroes, and each also possesses the ability to think and operate on its own, without even needing a wearer to use it. The ten rings are named Remaker, Influence, Spectral, Spin, Incandescence, Nightbringer, Daimonic, Zero, Lightning, and The Liar. They each have specific powers, but if you’re interested I’ll direct you to a place where you can learn more about those. For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to go into the subtle differences between “manipulating the atomic and molecular structures of matter” and “destroying the bonds between the atoms and the molecules”. Let’s put it this way: these things are powerful. Maybe not on quite the same level as, say, the One Ring of Power, but they’re up there.

Now, at first, upon reading all this, I had a crazy idea that somehow the Infinity Stones themselves would be used to explain the ten rings: that, somehow, when Thanos destroyed the seven stones, their broken fragments wandered across the universe and ended up in/on the hands of The Mandarin. Then I kind of realized that The Mandarin has been established to have had these ten rings since at least the 1950s. In the comics, he just happened to be the one guy around when a Makluan spaceship carrying the ten rings crash-landed in China: being a quick-thinking, practical sort of guy, The Mandarin killed the alien pilot and stole the rings. Much of the rest of his story has already been adapted in a slightly different fashion: he kidnapped Tony Stark (been there, done that), and then one of his rings ended up with Malekith the Dark Elf (he’s already dead in the MCU timeline). But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t interesting stories to be told.

For instance, the story of Tony Stark being kidnapped might have been adapted to the big screen already, but the Titanomechs which he built for the Mandarin in the comics haven’t: interestingly, these cyborg killers were later defeated by a swarm of Stark’s nanobots – and in the MCU, one of Stark’s last actions was to bequeath a similar swarm of nanobots to his friend, Peter Parker. There’s also the question of whether or not the rings will have their sentient abilities in the movies: if so, they could easily escape before The Mandarin is (possibly) defeated by Shang-Chi, and might find ten willing hosts for themselves. In the comics, when this happened, none of the hosts were really extraordinary, big-name characters – Malekith was by far the most important of them, and the MCU has already reduced him to a cut-and-dry one-off bad guy. The people that did end up with the rings were all rather pathetic, in fact: a disgruntled Broadway director who named himself “Lightning Conductor”, and a French neo-Nazi, for instance. But this time around, wouldn’t it be much more exciting if the rings actually went looking for the most powerful villains and criminals in the world – especially at this critical time, when there have been reports going around that Marvel wants to produce a villain team-up movie such as Thunderbolts, which could unite characters like Baron Zemo, Justin Hammer, Red Hulk and Ghost.

What do you think? How would you like to see the Ten Rings and the ten rings implemented into the MCU, and what sort of future could they have? Will the Mandarin be a one-and-done villain, or could he make multiple appearances in the next phase of Marvel films? Share your own theories in the comments below!

Fantastic Beasts 3

Spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, ahead!

 

Following Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, viewers were left with a myriad of unanswered questions. However, most of us took assurance in the fact that we would only have to wait two years for the next installment to figure out things like: how is Credence a Dumbledore? How is Minerva McGonagall alive years before her birth? How is it even humanly possible that Eddie Redmayne continues to get more and more adorable in the role of Newt Scamander?

However, our hopes were rudely shattered by the news, which broke in January, that production of Fantastic Beasts 3 had been pushed back to the fall of this year – it had been expected to start production in the summer. This was followed by the revelation that the release date rumored to be reserved for Fantastic Beasts 3, November 20th, 2020, had been given to the sci-fi epic Dune. Now we’ve been able to glean a few more details about why the production was delayed. In an interview with the LA Times, Warner Brothers chief executive Kevin Tsujihara revealed that he is aware that Crimes of Grindelwald was no critical darling, and that its box-office gross was not what he had hoped for: he suggested that this is being taken into consideration now, and that J.K Rowling is “working hard” on the script for Fantastic Beasts 3, which is interesting, since she finished writing it all the way back in December. Tsujihara also said that the third film will be better even than the first Fantastic Beasts movie, and that Rowling has “an incredible vision” of what the future installments in the series will be like. This is all very promising, especially when combined with Fantastic Beasts actor Dan Fogler’s statement that Fantastic Beasts 3 will be bigger than the first two movie combined. We can only hope that more news is on its way, and that we can get answers to our questions soon. But at the moment, it seems most likely that Fantastic Beasts 3 will be Apparating into theaters in 2021. That, of course, is small comfort for all of us fans who are dying to see what happens next to Newt & Co., but in my opinion the delay will actually be helpful: Crimes of Grindelwald, of course, was torn apart by critics and had only a moderate success at the box-office, so giving the production team more time to craft an excellent movie is not a bad idea, by any means. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts 3”