Blockbuster Cinema & Nature Conservation: Can they go hand in hand?

Contains minor plot details for ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016).

bowtruckle-newt-fantastic-beasts

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) marvels at a bowtruckle in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (Image: Warner Bros)

Like many people this weekend, I went to see the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last Friday. Unlike many of those people however, the draw wasn’t so much the opportunity to see Harry Potter’s wizarding universe again, but my hope that it would bring the idea of what it means to be a naturalist or conservationist (albeit one of magical creatures) into the mainstream.

And without giving too much away, I think it did a decent job. I would be lying to say I did not relate in some ways to Eddie Redmayne’s ‘magizoologist’ protagonist Newt Scamander: an introverted, eccentric character not quite sure where he stands with people, but a world unto his own among the creatures he loves. And without being too heavy handed, themes of bureaucratic indifference or hostility to nature, and the need to educate others on the wonder of wildlife to preserve it, all raise their head. Regardless of the fact the animals in the film don’t exist, it resonates with reality, and I’m going to be very soppy here and say that a couple of scenes that delve into Newt’s passion for the (super)natural world even bought a tear to my eye.

This showcases what could potentially be a valuable asset in the struggle to promote conservation awareness to the masses – blockbuster cinema.

It’s not a new thing, especially when it comes to welfare-centric stories of individual charismatic mammals; Born Free, Free Willy, take your pick (chances are ‘free’ will be in the title, that we can ascertain). But some of the wider species or environment-based issues are rarely seen, and when they are, it’s often documentary-based projects that have limited reach beyond the immediately interested audience.

As Planet Earth II is currently showing however, nature can awe mass audiences to the point that I’ve heard several people claiming it’s the pinnacle of what TV was invented for. And for filmmakers who wish to dive into the more fantastical, advances in CGI have allowed anthropomorphic-character based stories to take phenomenal leaps into the 21st century. For a fantastic example of this, look no further than Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book.

jungle-book-elephants

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

Characters infused with childhood nostalgia were regenerated on-screen to resemble their real life counterparts, blending the fantasy with the magic – you had a hyper-realistic tiger, who just happened to talk like Idris Elba. Such effects, on top of what was a genuinely well-written, performed and enjoyable story, allowed the movie to become the fourth-highest grossing film of 2016. And while you can’t really call The Jungle Book a conservation story, the seeds were there. Despite having only a couple of mintues screen time, a memorable appearance from a pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal, holds faith that this species could carry leading star potential in the future – something critical when few know what it is.

Additionally, the film continues the path set by the Lion King’s ‘circle of life’ (itself now set for a live-action remake), by slipping in an ecology lesson under the guise of quasi-religious romantic imagery. Here, the elephants are transformed from the military generals of the 60s animated film into something closer to reality than even Rudyard Kipling’s source text. The animals of the jungle worship them as the agents who shape their home – something I found to be a rather apt and beautiful way of explaining the concept of ecological engineers.

Presenting ecology and conservation issues in Hollywood is obviously not without its risks. This was made obvious when following the release of Finding Nemo, sales of clownfish to the “I want one” crowd shot through the roof, following with many individuals being harvested from the wild into a life of inappropriate care. The concern that arose prior to the release of Finding Dory therefore, with the even more delicate blue tang as its lead, is therefore understandable. The aforementioned hypothetical film about pangolins would be tricky – would the awareness raised encourage crackdown on the illegal trade, or just increase demand as everyone scrambled to order one of their own?

Regardless, the possibility of cinema to act as another voice for wildlife conservation is one that can’t be ignored. When it’s getting harder for people like myself to be heard, why not use the medium of the masses? With such a diverse natural world, the possibilities are endless. But personally, I would love to see one of my favourite childhood programmes, The Animals of Farthing Wood, re-adapted for the big screen, all in live-action Jungle Book style. The issues presented in both the books and its 1990s TV series – of British wildlife evicted from their home by development and their quest to find sanctuary in a nature reserve, facing the challenges presented by our antagonistic landscape on the way – resonate just as clearly today. It could showcase just how epic even the nature on our doorstep can be, while sending out clear messages of just how much we’ve pushed our wildlife to the edge in Britain.

Wildlife documentaries are notorious for frequently having to cut down the conservation message for fear of ‘depressing’ the audience. But perhaps assistance could be found in another medium – coming soon to a cinema near you.

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One thought on “Blockbuster Cinema & Nature Conservation: Can they go hand in hand?

  1. Pete, I really appreciated this post! It was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping someone would write on the heels of the “Fantastic Beasts” film release. Like you, I approached the movie primarily from a biodiversity perspective (am admittedly not much of a Harry Potter fan, but I share your love of the natural world), and was pleased by its underlying species preservation (albeit imaginary species) message.

    I have long believed that mainstream cinema is under-utilized as a means of promoting wildlife protection. There’s the occasional breakthrough documentary or children’s movie that directly or indirectly advocates for animals and/or the environment, but it’s much rarer that a movie geared toward general audiences that is fictional, yet highly engaging/entertaining, hits that mark. In my opinion, there’s something to the maxim, “Educate ’em a little, entertain ’em a lot.” People tend to resist being preached to, but a call to action interwoven within the context of a compelling story arc seems to be more easily absorbed and, perhaps, ultimately more memorable if viewers’ mental associations with that story and its execution are positive and powerful.

    It is my hope that over time, successful feature films will become an increasingly prevalent vehicle for advancing animal protection.

    You might be interested in an organization called AndACTION (http://andaction.org/) that harnesses the power of storytelling in film and television to advance social causes. I first learned about it a few months ago, and its work is quite intriguing.

    I wrote about a similar topic to your post on my own blog a few years ago following the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (“Animal Welfare Issues Get a Helping Hand from Hollywood”), if you’re interested in reading it:
    https://thelionsshareblog.com/2011/08/16/hollywood-helping-hand/

    Thanks for crafting such a thoughtful piece, and keep up the great work!

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