“I ANNOY PEOPLE,” says Eddie Redmayne to Dan Fogler in the opening half-hour of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in a five-part Harry Potter prequel series. Redmayne ain’t lying. “Annoying” is the perfect term for his portrayal of Fantastic Beasts’ hero, Newt Scamander, a shrugging, slumping sack of stammers and tics. He’s like Doctor Who with gout, and yet—just like the good Doctor in even his lamest incarnations, there’s just enough charm glimmering beneath the surface and shining through the contrivances that you can’t write him off entirely. See? Pretty fucking annoying.
So goes the lead, so goes the movie. Fantastic Beasts, featuring an original screenplay by J.K. Rowling, is annoying in the manner of Scamander: It is eager to please and amaze, but undersells its spectacle until that spectacle becomes perfunctory. It milks sentiment drier than the Arizona desert Newt’s trying to get to. It’s a goofy blast of kid-lit in love with Looney Tunes-inspired adventure—except when it’s a sour metaphor for child abuse and intolerance that owes one hell of a debt to Stephen King’s famous prom queen.
The magic is sold by Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, an aspiring baker trapped in a demoralizing job who gets predictably entangled in Scamander’s clumsy dipshittery. Kowalski is an idealized Kevin James in 1920s America, popping his eyes and gawping adorably at offhand magic sure to delight us Muggles (or No-Majs, as we’re called here in the US, because our slang has always been less elegant than the British, whose talent for the profane can make even the C-word sound endearing). Fogler manages to wring joy out of gags that should be burnt toast by now, creating a fun, touching character who fits perfectly within the Potter pantheon.
Meanwhile, that sour metaphor is embodied by Ezra Miller, all shaking intensity and glowering shame as Credence, an orphan adopted by an abusive zealot who wants to bring back the days of burning witches. Miller miraculously summons the emotional heft needed to carry his half of the story for the brief moments that director David Yates (who directed half of the Harry Potter films, including the two-part finale) finally lets him off the chain.
So how the hell do Rowling and Yates marry the kid-friendly, Pokémon-hunting silliness of the Scamander story (featuring a sequence where characters are literally jumping off floating furniture because the floor is lava) to the gloomy mystery of Credence's self-destructive spiral? They don’t! They just kinda smoosh 'em together, squeezing the life from way too many good actors in the process. Katherine Waterston's ex-Auror sidekick is all nervous, ineffectual murmurs and single-tear crying; Samantha Morton, as Credence's guardian, is a dead-eyed riff on Carrie's mom; and Colin Farrell's wizarding supercop Percival Graves isn't much more than rain-slicked wood. I don't even know what the fuck Jon Voight is doing here or why he's even (barely) trying—although honestly, that's in keeping with most appearances by Jon Voight since Anaconda.
But somehow, the two stories are sewed together just tightly enough that when Redmayne, Farrell, and Waterston come together to battle for Miller's soul, the TV pilot-esque clumsiness of Fantastic Beasts (there will be four more of these films, likely transforming ASAP into The Dumbledore Prequels) can be forgiven for the power in its climax. But then the movie, guaranteed to draw comparisons to Return of the King in the worst possible way, just won’t stop ending—until all the goodwill Yates has fitfully earned is worn so far down that all you're left with by the time the screen winks to black is Redmayne's honest appraisal from the very start: "I annoy people." Yes indeed, Mr. Scamander.