Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I became a fan of J. K. Rowling by way of Harry Potter, a series I read as a duty to my students. A teacher needs to be as well versed in Pop Culture as in methodology and content. Analogies and illustrations spring to life when a teacher links Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Easy A and Shakespeare's Hamlet to The Lion King.

Of course, after the first Harry Potter book, I was as eager as any adolescent for the next book and the next. When films debuted, I was among the first to see how directors and actors rendered Rowling’s characters on screen, and I was present for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it appeared in our part of the world.

You must see it. I recommend it without reservation.

Do you remember the first book that carried you into realms unimagined? A realm made real and tangible by an author’s imagination? Harry Potter's story may have been that book.

Rowling’s series about Harry Potter’s initiation into maturity and magic transformed Harry’s perception of reality as much as it did his reading friends’ at home. Rowling invented a world that exists fully in our peripheral vision. Hardscapes are pliable, and chimneys are flight paths.

Rowling created an alternate reality in three dimensions. She populated it with people endearing and annoying, heroic and misguided. She made the truth we know fantastic and large. She issued an invitation welcoming us all.

With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling succeeds once more. We travel back to the 1920s, a time we’ve seen in history books and period films, a post-Gilded Age on the brink of untold sorrows with headlines reading Stock Market Collapses, Dust Storm Rolls Across the Midwest, and The Great Depression. Fantastic Beasts takes place ahead of these, but New York City in 1926 is already strife-ridden. A divide exists between people without magical gifts and those who have them. This strife stems from an Obscurati, an invisible force arising from a child suppressing its magical nature, and as with most things denied and dodged, the force grows malignant, especially when a power-mad wizard uses that force.

Trying hard to exist without being noticed, Newt Scamander arrives in search of fantastic beasts, including the rare Obscurati. Expelled from Hogwarts, Newt is the only wizard devoted to the much misunderstood and maligned work of finding and rescuing fantastic beasts. He travels alone, befriending beasts he pities.

In Newt's worn suitcase are beasts he's found around the world. Like Hermione’s little purse, the case is a portal into wide, deep spaces--a zoo for those beasts and the source for much confusion and humor.  

Newt’s story is an everyman tale--one man against himself, another, and an entire society. Newt is in conflict with his own best interests because he cannot follow the path others take. If he could, life would be simpler and relationships easier. Newt’s also in conflict with others who either misinterpret his quest or oppose both his methods and ends. His pursuits place him in the middle of the social conflicts between magic and non-magic and between powerful forces within each realm. He must hold steady and do as little harm as possible.

Such a character appeals to us. He’s both heroic and modest, kind and stern when necessary. He rarely looks others in the eye unless, of course, the other is a fantastic beast sorely in need of empathy and care. They have Newt for that, and that allows a disgraced investigator for the world of magic to fall for him, rendering Fantastic Beasts a romance story. But as I’ve often written, a romance is truly a quest folded into an initiation story, full of ideals and good causes more than love.

The second reason to see Fantastic Beasts is because it’s visually stunning. The 3D and CGI effects are among the best to date--better than other, recent SciFi movies. The film dazzles and delights. Don’t miss it.