Fantastic Beasts and How to Mind Them

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Inher first original screenplay, J.K. Rowling introduces audiences to a thrilling offshoot of the Harry Potter universe — but misses an opportunity to make a major statement about the preservation of Earth’s real fauna.

By Louise Fabiani

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In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Eddie Redmayne plays a magizoologist, or student of magical creatures. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

“We don’t allow the breeding of magic creatures in New York.” Early on in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first installment in a new five-movie offshoot of the Harry Potter world, one the film’s characters, Tina, wryly reminds British protagonist Newt Scamander that he’s no longer in the United Kingdom. It’s a humorous moment: Though Tina and Newt are magicians that can teleport between countries at will, they must abide municipal animal control ordinances like anyone else.

At first glance, it seems that Fantastic Beasts, a surreal, two-hour romp through Flapper-era New York, is offering itself up as a diversion; its CGI-rendered creatures are certainly more thrilling than chilling, and suitable for all ages. But, as befits creator J.K. Rowling’s best-known work (Rowling wrote the screenplay), most of the fun serves as a temporary sleight of hand.

Rowling always forces readers, young and older, to think about death — the ultimate disappearing act. In the Harry Potterbooks, the eponymous protagonist battled a terrorist (Lord Voldemort) whose followers destroyed bridges and militarized under-18s (Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle). In Fantastic Beasts, witchcraft and its practitioners become suspects linked to a rash of mysterious disasters, hinting not only at actual, historical witch hunts, but their modern-day equivalents, groups like Mexican immigrants and Muslims that have been scapegoated for social ills.

In Fantastic Beasts, Rowling also applies her favored theme to the film’s many human and non-human interactions — but only superficially. Fantastic Beasts offered an opportunity to address actual ecological crime, such as humans wiping out the passenger pigeon or slaughtering elephants for their ivory, in addition to infractions on human dignity. But in her first film project, Rowling chose not to go there, even though the natural world can be far more fraught with peril and responsibility than the supernatural one.

Beasts focuses on Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a mild-mannered “magizoologist”(student of magical beings) who has arrived in New York to relocate several species from Britain to the United States. When he accidentally releases one of his creatures in a bank, Scamander sets out in pursuit of it — and later escapees — with a magically depthless valise at the ready.

Though members of America’s Magical Congress view the magical animals as a safety hazard, Scamander looks at things the other way around. “Right now, [the creatures] are in alien territory, surrounded by the most evil of the animals, humans,” he tells magical law-enforcement officer Tina (Katherine Waterston, later an ally) early in the story. Indeed, the cruelty that humans can inflict is a major theme in the film: During the dénouement one of the main characters narrowly avoids a gruesome death penalty; and child abuse, overt and otherwise, shadows the story. The film intercuts Scamander’s search with the subplot of a shy but creepy youth named Credence (Ezra Miller), who is beaten by foster mother Mrs. Barebone (Samantha Morton), and trailed by the director of magical security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who touches his back frequently and suggestively when they speak.

True to its title, the primary focus of the film is not, however, the cruelty of humans, but the hunt for missing members of Newt’s magical menagerie. The first action sequence involves the escape of an extremely cute platypus-like critter called a niffler, which starts picking customers’ pockets in the bank; and a variety of endearing (if sometimes monstrous) creatures take over subsequent scenes. Like sidekick Rubert Grint in the Harry Pottermovies (ever-awed about Harry’s powers, even after years of friendship), a “No-Maj” (non-magical person) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) serves as the audience stand-in. Plunging into his Tardis-like suitcase’s portable world, Newt demonstrates to a gawking Jacob how he keeps members of his still-captive bestiary — in a series of landscapes, from desert to rain forest, that seem to exist as the interiors of circus tents.

The film does allude to larger issues about the natural world, such as species extinction. At one point, Newt introduces Jacob to a sweet-natured family of massive, tentacle-faced pseudo-pachyderms. He announces, “They’re the last breeding pair.”

It is a pity the film briefly juxtaposes awe-inspiring animals with the idea of their endangerment, then changes the subject.

But, overall, the film dodges the nasty possibility that these animals face immediate extinction, or even “population bottlenecks,” events that can drastically diminish a species’ population. Soon after Newt introduces the pachyderms to Jacob, a shot depicts what appears to be the result of the behemoths breeding (there is a smaller version present, presumably an offspring). Another group of animals, feathered, serpent-like creatures, are seen hatching out of silver shells. Meanwhile, unlike in Noah’s ark, few of Newt’s other beasts are paired, let alone plentiful — Rowling saves mention of extinction for only a few select, eye-catching species.

It is a pity the film briefly juxtaposes awe-inspiring animals with the idea of their endangerment, then changes the subject.

Instead,Beasts reflects and recognizes humans’ historic fascination with collections of animals, most often exotic ones, as a form of entertainment and exhibitionism. Kings and caliphs of the ancient world built elaborate enclosures to show off dangerous predators and astounding creatures like giraffes and rhinoceroses to their visitors; present-day members of the mega-rich have been known to keep wild animals for their beauty and ferocity, too, enclosing them in luxurious fortresses — take the late Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch (which housed a few llamas, two tigers, numerous flamingoes) or the gated estates of Colombian drug czars (at least one was partial to hippopotamuses).

In the grand tradition of mythological creatures like griffins and centaurs, many of Rowling’s fantastic beasts (derived from the creatures catalogued in a Hogwarts schoolbook that gave the movie its name) are chimeras, a blend of familiar real-life animals. Our tendency to blur the lines between reality and verisimilitude instories about the natural world has a lengthy history: Many mythological birds and beasts, including those featured in medieval art, were probably inspired by grossly inaccurate descriptions of foreign fauna observed by sailors and explorers. It’s little wonderthat Rowling uses chimeras so often — they belong among her other references to half-natural, half-fanciful relics of the peri-Renaissance period, like alchemy.

Fantastic Beasts, like other animated features with talking animals, also panders to a particularly child-like tendency to respond to other forms of life. In the 1980s, biologist E.O. Wilson coined the Biophilia Hypothesis, explaining that humans have an innate attraction to all things natural (and supernatural). It’s a deeply rooted phenomenon: Humans’ lives once depended on quickly acquired folk-zoology, the unschooled ability to recognize the identity and behavior of wild animals (many indigenous peoples, of course, still do). More recent research — and a popular book arising from it, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods — suggests that good mental health requires regular contact with non-human life, starting at an early age.

It may very well be, as some claim, that how children acquire ecological sensitivity hardly matters as long as they do. Butcartoon critters, and the briefly but highly popular game of Pokémon Go — which sent people outside in droves (ostensibly priming them for future nature-watching pursuits) — seem to fall short of the mark for their exclusion of the actual living beings wildlife educators hope more of us would appreciate. Fantastic Beasts aims for our hearts, if not our minds or consciences, in much the same way.

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