It’s no surprise that director David Yates floated the idea of doing a Doctor Who movie after finishing the last four Harry Potter films. A Doctor Who-ish tone is all over Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as well as, of course, gobs of Harry Potter – not to mention the X-Men and, probably to the consternation of the Fantastic Beasts’ producers, even that other doctor named Strange (since both Fantastic and Strange were produced concurrently).
The Potter pedigree comes from J.K. Rowling, the amazing author of the original Harry novels, who has seemingly decided to conquer every other medium now that she’s queen of books. Recently, there was the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and now there’s this prequel/spin-off film, both scripted and produced by Rowling herself – one that comes equipped with four sequels, already announced and in pre-production.
Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, already known to Potter readers as an author himself — of a popular non-fiction book for wizards where the movie gets its title from. This film finds him traveling to a vaguely recognizable, essentially alternate universe, 1920’s New York for reasons as nebulous as his communicative abilities. Monosyllabic, mumbling, evasive, tentative, and quirky, Newt sets the bar for audience appreciation. If he tries your patience, you’re in for an tough time. But if he intrigues you, the film can start weaving its spell.
Magic either works or it doesn’t. Personally, in Rowling I trust, so I allowed the two hour and fifteen minute to lull me into a happy fantasy stupor – its familiarity both an asset and a possible liability as call-backs and in-jokes roll by. For better or worse, this is Rowlings’ vision, so I accepted both the wizarding and movie stereotypes – sometime begrudgingly but sometimes happily — taking great pleasure in the rare richness of the purposeful pace and splendid visuals.
Redmayne is all tics, seemingly playing a melding of Doctor Who 10 (David Tennant) and 11, (Matt Smith). In fact, I expected him to say “bow ties are cool” at any second. Sadly, his co-star Katherine Waterston is so pale, slight, and charisma-soft that I thought she was going to be revealed as a ghost at any moment. Her sister, however (well-filled, I mean played, by Alison Sudol) is such a throw-back to the wide-eyed, wide-jawed, seemingly bubble-headed dames of 1940’s screwball comedies that it’s hard to accept they came from the same DNA.
Another 1940s echo is the big-bellied, big-hearted lug, played by perennial, second-tier, arrested development, best buddy enactor Dan Fogler, whose career is so full of “call-him if-Jack-Black/Josh-Gad/Seth-Rogan/Jonah-Hill/Zach-Galifianakis-turns us down” roles that it looked like he’d never get a shot at the big time. But Fantastic Beasts is his five-part ticket to ride, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity. He gives heart and, dare I say it, weight, to a thankless role, and brightens every scene he’s in. He and Sudol even make the only-in-the-movies relationship between his schlub and her bombshell work.
This obvious set-up for the sequels succeeds on the basis of how much you want it to. As a fellow viewer told me at the end credits: “This was just what I was expecting, and just what I wanted.” If you agree with her, you’re in for a good time, full of charm (if not wit), the fully expected, and maybe even a surprise or two.