The Bestiary: Get to Know These Creatures in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
By KARL R. De MESA
I confess: I like the wizarding world of 1920s New York way better than Hogwarts across the Atlantic.
New York and the rest of the US are in the throes of industrialization and it looks steampunk as heck. The volatile stew of immigrants caught in the frisson between their old superstitions and the relentless mechanization and automation, that are the hallmark of the age, makes for a great backdrop.
To be clear, this series is set decades before the events in the original series and lacks any directly organic connection to any of the Harry Potter characters.
Like a multicultural United Colors of Benneton of magical disciplines the Americans have a governing body called the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) that oversees the laws and compacts that regulate the use of any magical activity. They also endeavor to keep in place the masquerade that hides the magic-users from the rest of the No-Majs (American for Muggles). There’s also a growing faction of anti-witch and wizard religious fanatics called the Second Salemers, humans who suspect that magic-users are secretly behind many of the misfortunes of the people and are thus bent on eradicating them.
Into this rich cultural tapestry arrives rogue magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He’s just nearing the end of his global excursion to research and rescue magical creatures. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know that the creatures he’s studying and collecting are safeguarded in the magical hidden dimensions of his deceptive leather case.
By this time, Eddie Redmayne has mastered the art of being a thespian of near supreme physical subtlety. Even his weird role in Jupiter Ascending shows his range. Redmayne inhabits Newt and breathes life into him as both passionate and extremely narrow-sighted. He likes magical animals better than people and he has very little patience and foresight with social interactions: he’s a nerd with an animal fetish. See, he’s kind of, sort of aware that the powerful, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, after wreaking havoc in Europe, has escaped and intelligence posits him to most likely be in New York but his eyes glaze over whenever someone in authority, like former Auror (the magical equivalent of an FBI agent) Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), talks and arrests him for violating the Statute of Secrecy when he lets his Niffler go on a stealing spree in a bank.
It’s refreshing that the straight man here is actually a woman (well, two women: Tina and her sister Queenie played by Alison Sudol), and it takes an actual team using their abilities and strengths in tandem to resolve situations. The original series was rife with deus ex machinae (okay, so they were kids and such, but still) and was exceedingly, almost painfully built for children and the YA market. It’s literature that announces itself, for sure (here comes the plane, open wiiiide!).
In other words, the problems afflicting 1926 New York in this world—including a renegade dark magician from Europe, religious nutcases bent on burning witches, contentious ownership of possibly vicious supernatural animals, jazz speakeasies fronting as black markets in artifacts and stolen goods, and magical creatures run amok—are municipal in scale. The complications here are adult in nature.
David Yates (who also did the recent Tarzan remake) does a good job of using a classical trope of misfits, who become reluctant allies and then transform into friends, to finish the mission of uncovering a greater threat beyond that posed by missing magical beasts. It makes excellent use of the clueless No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Tony Award winner Dan Fogler in fine form) as a way to move the story forward without resorting to serendip or magical copout.
It must also be noted that Colin Farrell’s quietly brutish presence as the MACUSA’s head of security Percival Graves lends an air of gravitas to what would probably come off as a series of comedic interludes rather than misadventures presaging a grand revelation.
As fun as it is to watch the story unfold there’s also much joy in beholding the magical world come to life in 3D IMAX, to see the ecology of the animals as Newt sees them: dangerous and gentle and beautiful. Here’s just 8 of the magical beasts featured in the movie you can dig.
This thing looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a platypus. Except he’s on steroids and moves like The Flash. The Niffler is the first of Newt’s creatures to escape the case. He’s a mischievous, furry rodent with a duck-bill for a mouth and a marsupial-type pouch that magically expands to store a seemingly endless amount of stolen treasures. “The Niffler loves shiny things, so anything that glints or sparkles is irresistible to him,” Redmayne explains in the film’s production notes. “Newt has a love/hate relationship with the Niffler because he’s such a character that Newt can’t help but be fond of him, despite the fact that he is endlessly causing trouble.”
This is a living, somewhat bipedal, very tiny, twig-like creature and Newt has about six of them in his menagerie. Newt’s fave is named Pickett, who hangs out in his jacket pocket. “[Pickett] has attachment issues and prefers to hang out in Newt’s pocket rather than with the rest of the Bowtruckles.”
By far the biggest animal in Newt’s care is the Erumpent. Once it escapes, it leaves a path of destruction in its wake. This Erumpent is specially sensitive since it’s female, and it’s in heat. The fact that the Erumpent is in season gives Newt a way to coax her back into his case: combining a drop of Erumpent musk with what Redmayne teasingly calls “one of the more humiliating moments in the film”: mimicking an Erumpent mating dance.
At first glance, the Swooping Evil appears to be nothing more than a small, green, spiny cocoon. But it expands to become something with the body of a reptile and the multi-colored wings of a large butterfly. When it is correctly flung, “similar to a yo-yo,” Redmayne says, “it expands into this beautiful but vicious-looking creature that swoops around until Newt calls him back and he wraps back into the cocoon again.” The Swooping Evil has also been known to suck out brains. Great.