Thursday, December 29, 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

     These aren't the hallowed grounds of Hogwarts. This isn't Diagon Alley, bursting with marvelous sights and children pressing their noses against the shop windows to get a look at the newest broom. This is smog-ridden Prohibition-era New York City, where seedy underground speakeasies deal in contraband far more precious than bottles of booze. In this barely pre-Depression NYC, segregation marks the laws governing the lives of magical folks. Not traditional segregation, but strict and unyielding laws regarding No-Maj's, otherwise known as Muggles (or, non-magic folk). An unspoken fear rules over the lives of magical and non-magical folks alike as strange and unexplained accidents populate the headlines. Politics on both sides of things are in a state of unrest. A small but highly vocal movement of puritanical extremists calling for a second Salem to purge the land of witchcraft and wizardry certainly don't help the general uneasiness. And in this grey industrial metropolis, magical creatures are strictly banned; most inconvenient for magizoologist Newt Scamander, who has just entered NYC carrying an ark of magical creatures in his charmed briefcase.

     Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them operates as an excellent world-building installment to the Potterverse, taking the audience to new locations and time periods than were previously shown in Harry Potter. The magical world is indeed a world-- not just pockets in Europe. And true to the design of our non-magical world, things are different depending on where you are. New York City's magic world is an entirely different culture, setting, and tone than what we've seen in London through the years of Harry Potter. As far as we're shown, NYC doesn't have a Diagon Alley equivalent where witches and wizards can move freely and use magic indiscreetly. NYC has its own Ministry of Magic, known as MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with its own set of unique protective charms and illusions, but otherwise magical communities are fragmented, meeting in secret jazzy nightclubs and behind closed doors all over NYC.

     Fantastic Beasts was marketed as a story wherein Newt's briefcase of magical animals is accidentally opened, unleashing all manner of untamed magical creatures to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting NYC, ala Pandora's Box. Naturally this would require an adventure of recapturing the plethora of escaped animals before too much damage is done. In reality, Fantastic Beasts is made up of several overlapping plots, some of which seem entirely disconnected until later in the story. For example, quite a business is made of how the criminal Grindelwald escaped capture by MACUSA's aurors (think elite government-employed bounty-hunters) and how this has concerned the magical community. This really doesn't seem like it could have any bearing on Newt and his magical briefcase, and for the most part, doesn't until much later in the story. For most of the story, Newt is scampering around snatching up his comical animal subjects against a looming backdrop of darker situations unfolding.

      The antagonists of the story are mostly disconnected from Newt, and are more antagonistic to their setting than they are towards the story's hero. Early on in the movie, we're introduced to a soapbox activist archetype named Mary Lou Barebone -- a rigid extremist who is on a mission to raise awareness of the presence of witches and wizards in NYC, and incite a "Second Salem" to rid the land of the poison of magic. Her pamphlet crusades and curbside speeches are not especially effective, but then there's also her perverse mercy mission of taking in orphans and domestically abusing the potential for magic out of them. It's not entirely clear how she came to know about magic at all, but her limited and skewed knowledge makes her a fanatical conspiracy theorist, referring to "secret societies dating back centuries," and blaming magic for all that's wrong with the country.

     The only other obvious antagonist to the story that can be identified without spoilers is the government and its employees. MACUSA is scrambling to maintain the fragile secrecy of the magical world, and enacts inflexible social codes without exception to ensure the security of the community. And since Newt is smuggling illegal creatures into the country, he's bound to have a few run-ins with the law. True to form, even within the strict and unyielding righteous government, secrets and deceptions abound.

      The heart of Rowling's Potterverse work has always been how her heroes are actually fairly ordinary people, at least in their own world. Newt Scamander is a freckly, mumbling, gangling sort of fellow, and not particularly witty or charming; simply dedicated to his work. Tina Goldstein is a plain type of utilitarian working woman, simply attired, demoted at MACUSA to a job below her skills and ambitions. Jacob Kowalski is clumsy, plump, and non-magical. Queenie can't do better than a basic secretarial job, despite her skills at legilimency (mind-reading). Magic might be awe-inspiring if you're a No-Maj, but for the magical folks, their lives have just as much tendency towards the ordinary and mundane as the rest of us who fondly imagine ourselves in their world. This parallel to reality is what has always made the characters of the Potterverse relatable, despite their living in a world that seems so fantastic.

     If you take a good look at Newt Scamander, he doesn't seem like the type to get kicked out of Hogwarts. He seems like the type who would never disrupt class, talk back, or say anything rude to anyone. We know that Dumbledore vouches for Newt, which might be a hint that either his expulsion was an injustice (just like Hagrid later on in the timeline), or that despite deserving expulsion, Dumbledore believes in the purpose that Newt feels called to. Whatever the actual reason, Dumbledore's support of Newt speaks volumes. It's in little tidbits such as these that we build our perception of who Newt is. Dumbledore likes him. He's a magizoologist. He was friends at school with a member of the LeStrange family. If you watched the Harry Potter movies, you may remember Harry's awkward friend Neville Longbottom: that's the type of hero Newt is. He's in just about every way, a likable unlikely hero.

    Newt may be inelegant, but there is more to him than meets the eye; there would have to be in order to catch and control the kinds of creatures he has in his case. When you consider the myriad of beasts and dangers some of them represent, you come to realize that Newt has his own brand of courage, and he is confident in it. Though the scene of Newt performing a mating dance to lure an erumpent (a rhino-like creature with a combustible horn) back into its cage is overwhelmingly comical, it also demonstrates Newt's fearlessness within his area of expertise. Newt strikes you as exactly the sort of person who deals with animals because he understands and connects with them much easier than he does with people. In turn, his creatures seem to understand him better than society does.

     Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stylishly manages to feel familiar yet new, as is appropriate for a story that precedes Harry Potter by several decades. To the film's credit, references to the later Harry Potter story are restrained, using only a few small mentions of Dumbledore, Hogwarts, and the LeStrange family, but otherwise steering clear of setting itself up as a direct prequel. While this is the same universe that Harry Potter will one day operate in, the stories are only loosely related, which is refreshing. In Newt's time, Lord Voldemort has not yet come to be, therefore the major events that set up and drive Harry Potter haven't happened, and likely won't involve Newt at all when they do. There are a few hints that Newt's story will have some further overlap to Dumbledore's history, but otherwise Newt is free to go and have his adventures with his fantastic beasts, unshackled by convenient and unnecessary presence at major historical events. To force this would be turning Newt Scamander into Forrest Gump, and tragically limiting his character and potential. 

     Turning Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into a film franchise was a bit of a gamble, but seems to have paid off. Considering that the only written source material that we've ever had on this subject was the textbook that Harry toted around, the filmmakers have been given the rare (and undoubtedly liberating) opportunity to produce a story that can't be judged by its book. Fans of Harry Potter know very little about Newt Scamander, except that he wrote an authoritative textbook on magical creatures. Very little is known about the author of the textbook, or what manner of calamities he endured to research the world's magical fauna, so the fans are free to enjoy the movies without comparing them to previously published material, and the filmmakers need not fear too severe a backlash from the fans.

     As previously mentioned, Newt Scamander isn't really what you'd consider a poster boy hero.  But then again, neither was Harry Potter. Newt is a proactive character in the sense that he's not just a victim of circumstance, but he still doesn't seem to have the makings of an iconic hero. Yet despite his ordinariness, Newt is on track to be a well-loved protagonist. He's likable in his awkwardness, passionate in his obscure pursuits, and loyal to those he calls friends (even if those friends be non-human). As a movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an excellent world-building piece, as well as a fun story on its own. The creatures are delightful, the music is enjoyable, and the overall return to the magical world is engaging. If the subsequent movies can maintain this level of originality and quality, the next few years will be quite magical indeed.