“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them”

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a combination of Harry Potter and Doctor Who in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” He’s also one of the coolest on-screen protagonists this year.

“Fantastic Beasts” takes place in 1926 and is a spin-off of the “Harry Potter” franchise. Scamander, an eccentric British magician, arrives in New York with a large briefcase that contains several creatures. He accidentally unleashes them through the city and must capture all of them before humans (or no-maj’s) learn of magic.

The most impressive aspect of “Fantastic Beasts” is how it manages to be its own movie without relying heavily on “Harry Potter” references. Sure, Dumbledore and Hogwartz are both mentioned, but the characters aren’t winking at the audience. Director David Yates (“Harry Potter” 5-8) maintains his aesthetics and style from his “HP” installments.

Light is used effectively to heighten characters’ moods and tension throughout the movie.It also compliments the film’s expressionistic cinematography and magical effects. The action sequences are fun, but the best action moments are the slapstick chases between Scamander and a Niffler.

“Fantastic Beasts” suffers from some pacing and tone issues that could have been avoided with a few simple rewrites. There are one too many villains and subplots that take the movie in several directions. One minute, it’s a political thriller, then a gangster movie, then finally a social commentary on child abuse. These scenes were distracting from Scamander’s story.

Dan Fogler takes a restrained turn as Scamander’s sidekick, Jacob Kawalski. He’s a funny and likable every-man, who feels he’s meant for something greater. He has some of the best scenes, but his story runs too long in the final act.

Redmayne and Fogler work well together and their characters are the best part. Scamander relates more to his creatures than other people while Jacob feels he’s meant for something greater. The duo’s chemistry and friendship help them overcome obstacles.

“Fantastic Beasts” is a fun movie. Much like last week’s “Arrival,” it’s another lighthearted movie with a positive message.

Grade: B+

“Doctor Strange”

Leave it to the peculiar and theatrical Benedict Cumberbatch to brilliantly play the equally peculiar and theatrical Doctor Strange. This guy rocks!

Stephen Strange is a brilliant-yet-arrogant surgeon, who effortlessly saves lives while dancing to jazz music. After a terrible accident cripples his hands and ends his career, he travels to Kamar-Taj to find a cure. He instead finds a new calling in mystic arts, wearing a powerful cape, and battling sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

“Doctor Strange” begins as a traditional origin story with a troubled protagonist finding his calling, but then it defies the formula. Don’t worry, folks. We get plenty of Doctor Strange after the 45-minute mark. Kudos to the writers for turning every plot prediction and cliche upside down.

Director Scott Derrickson, better known for horror titles such as “Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” brilliantly directs some innovative, quirky, and beautiful action sequences. They’re quite reminiscent of some of the best “Doctor Who” episodes and Sam Raimi’s work.

The style is great, but there is substance. Strange is a complex character with an overwhelming god complex. Transitioning from surgeon to wizard, he is eager to break all rules and learn all forms of magic to simply be number one. Think a sorcerer version of Tony Stark.

The supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofer as Strange’s mentor Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as the sassy Mystic Arts master Wong, and Rachel McAdams as Strange’s former lover Christine. They all do a great job, each balancing drama and deadpan comedy in their respective performances.

The biggest flaw is use of exposition. There are several scenes where characters deliver exposition-fueled monologues regarding the mythology. It’s forgivable because of the strong protagonist and visionary direction.

“Doctor Strange” is a huge surprise that’s worth seeing. I missed the 3D, but good thing that’s what the second viewing is for.

Grade: A