The animals in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are so compelling that it’s easy to ignore the film’s otherwise mediocre plot. That’s because the magizoologist character Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a science hero who somehow ended up in a fantasy movie. Sure, he’s a wizard who carries around a huge lab in a cunning briefcase that’s a lot bigger inside. But despite all the proverbs, this Harry Potter prequel offers some of the most realistic depictions of environmental research fieldwork you’re likely to see in a movie this decade.
Some spoilers ahead. Come on folks, you’ve had weeks to see this movie.
Not all about Fantastic Beasts is worth it, so let’s slightly ignore the disjointed plot about moderation politics and the Magic Congress of the US and Johnny Depp’s hair and anti-magical repression. Nothing made more sense than a standard episode of real blood. Fortunately, it felt like a backdrop to the real story of this movie, which is about Newt coming to the United States so he can release a giant, Cretaceous magical bird back into its natural habitat.
Unfortunately, Newt carries his lab and all his animals in a suitcase with rather dodgy locks. After some crazy pranks, a few of his “fantastic creatures” escape, and he’s sent on a crazy quest to recapture them all before they hurt anyone – or, more likely, a human kills them.
Fantastic Beasts turn all the tropes of the magical monster movie upside down with the Newt storyline. This is not a Godzilla emergency or Gremlins scenario, where magical animals threaten a city with their deadly powers. Instead, the bad guys are people (magical and otherwise) who don’t care if rare animals go extinct. Newt isn’t your typical monster hunter either. He has no cages or poison arrows or Pokeballs. Instead, his suitcase lab has a huge outdoor space inside, filled with different habitats, where all the animals can live in the environments that suit them.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Newt takes his new friends Porpentina and Jacob in the suitcase to help him with dinner. He has a well-stocked room full of the exact kinds of kibble that infinitely large snakes, giant birds, fuzzy things, nifflers and dozens of other creatures enjoy. The animals are only in this place because Newt protects them from extinction, he explains. His goal is to release them back to their native habitat when they’re ready. At the same time, he’s looking for more endangered animals so he can get them out of harm’s way.
Everything about Newt’s work, from the habitats he maintains to his meticulous notes on the animals, is astonishingly similar to what environmental scientists do every day. Working in the midst of bustling New York City makes his work even more realistic, as human disturbance is the main reason animals are driven from their habitats and face extinction. Somehow, a movie about wand battles and evil shapeshifters gave us a scientific hero trying to protect biological diversity. As author JK Rowling said in a release about the film, “I felt like Newt was the only voice saying, ‘We need to keep these creatures. We shouldn’t wipe them out.'”
Magical Scientific Realism
Rowling isn’t the first fantasy author to bring environmental science into her work. Perhaps the most famous example is the breathtaking 1997 film Hayao Miyazaki Princess Mononoke, about how the spirits of nature battle with industrialists who want to destroy the forest. One could easily say that this is a theme in Lord of the Ringsat.
But since the 1990s, we’ve seen an explosion of real geoscience and zoology in fantasy stories. Perhaps the most famous example is the Game of Thrones series, based on the series by George RR Martin A song of ice and fire. The geological and climatic implications of this series are so rich that a group of graduate students at Stanford wrote a not-quite-joking scientific monograph on the geology of Westros.
NJ Jemisin’s award-winning broken earth trilogy explores climate change and plate tectonics on an alien world full of humans who use a magical power called orogeny to control geophysics with their minds. Orogeny is a scientific term for the movement of the Earth’s crust.
Classic horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and supernatural often contain secret scientific societies devoted to recording magical monsters. Like Newt, whose scientific treatise is also mentioned Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemThese “Watchers” or secret orders are essentially magizoologists who track all wildlife that cannot be observed by their mundane counterparts.
Meanwhile, Marie Brennan’s hero A Natural History of Dragons series is about a 19th century naturalist named Lady Trent who writes a memoir about her studies of the world’s dragon species. As we follow her fieldwork, we are treated to a comprehensive analysis of dragon phylogenies, reproductive strategies, and evolutionary niches. We also find dragon naturalists among the characters in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternate history where the Napoleonic Wars are fought with dragons. In both Brennan’s and Novik’s novels, the handling and preservation of dragons is paramount to the characters. These fearsome beasts may have deadly breathing weapons, but they are in great danger from humans.
Perhaps one of the most literary works of magical environmental realism is the novel by Ekaterina Sedia The house of wasted dreams. In it, a biology researcher conducts experiments in which she has to drain the blood of thousands of horseshoe crabs. Sedia, a biologist herself, describes current scientific experiments that use a chemical in horseshoe crab blood that is susceptible to bacterial contamination. The blood is used to test the purity of drugs and other substances. More than half a million horseshoe crabs are bled and released each year — most survive, but a significant percentage fail to recover. It is this bloodguilt that haunts the biologist in House of discarded dreams. One day she wakes up to find that her house has drifted into the sea, and she is at the mercy of horseshoe crab spirits who are not satisfied with what she has done.
Today, you’ll find the scientific method lurking just as much in a story about sparkly dragon riders as you do in a story about space battles or robots. Especially when it comes to biology and geosciences, fantasy stories are just as much about the reality of research as science fiction. And this is something to celebrate, because a good story is the perfect way to open people’s minds to the wonders of discovery and the natural world.