At a few West Coast theaters this Friday, Diane Keaton’s dog weepie Darling Companion and the documentary Chimpanzee will make room in the theatrical line-up for one more animal movie, the docufiction Otter 501. That’s right. While the rest of the world was distracted by the latest superhero shawarma scandal, the rapidly growing field of wildlife documentaries produced a transmedia movie in a genre you might have never heard of. About otters. And in a few weeks, this spring’s primates, canines, and water weasels will migrate to the DVD shelf, replaced by their summer counterparts in Madagascar 3, Ice Age: Continental Drift, and Piranha 3DD. There will, in other words, always be a creature feature at the movie theater.
Animals have always been celluloid stars: the Lumière brothers exhibited short films of horses and cats years before the first feature-length film. But the last few years have seen a flood (or is that an ark?) of animal movies. The wildlife doc, for example, is the industry’s newest success story. For example, Disneynature, founded only in 2008, has released four of the top ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time. The interest in looking at animals certainly seems limitless: the popularity of pet videos on YouTube, cable channels like Animal Planet and National Geographic, high-profile docs like March of the Penguins and Project Nim, and the 101 talking animal movies Hollywood released last year certainly attests to that. But while many of the animals on smaller-scale media like television and Internet videos are simply recorded and presented as they exist, the narrative requirements of feature films — a three-act story spanning 90-120 minutes — force movie animals to relate to humans so that we can identify with them as characters, or at least as narrative props.
Thus, most animal movies are really about people in one of these five ways:
Type #1: Animals are people, but with cuter exteriors.
Recent examples: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Happy Feet 2, Puss in Boots
Explanation: Typically animated and aimed at children, movies about wisecracking animals are perennial favorites. Though they may retain some of their species’ quirks, the characters are basically humans in animal form -- probably because lions and zebras tend to make for cuter merchandise than anatomically confusing dolls. (To watch animals in human form — i.e., people treated as pets — watch the first half of Fantastic Planet.)
The feuding felines in Puss in Boots love milk and hate each other like any self-adoring real-life cat, but they also wear hats, run on two feet, duel with swords, flirt with human women, and flamenco-fight.
Type #2: Animals in the wild are also people.
Recent examples: Chimpanzee, To the Arctic
Explanation: Wildlife docs should be the exception to animal anthropomorphism, but filmmakers seem intent on telling familiar tales about parent-child relationships. Many mammals and birds undoubtedly spend an inordinate amount of effort protecting their young, but these films’ focus on the family is likely a result of feature-length nature docs forming a booming niche in family programming.
This lushly shot excerpt from Chimpanzee doesn’t just showcase animals using tools, but subtle conservative moralizing as well. Tim Allen’s dumb caveman whooping, the mention of one male chimpanzee named “Freddy,” and descriptions of the rocks as “hammers,” “heavy equipment,” and “power tools” unnecessarily and unscientifically suggest that tool use is an exclusively male activity.
Type #3: People are (mostly) good.
Recent examples: Darling Companion, Big Miracle, We Bought a Zoo
Explanation: Humans are essentially good creatures who need occasional reminders of their better natures from innocent, helpless creatures. (Children can’t do all the heavy lifting.) In these films, animals are litmus tests for human morality: Characters who like animals are kind and stalwart, while characters who don’t are morally suspect. (Very few are neutral.) One character always resists falling in love with the dog/dolphin/donkey, but of course they fall the hardest in the end.
In We Bought a Zoo, recent widower and animal newbie Matt Damon is faulted by humans and animals alike for failing to show his new wards respect. When Damon casually swaggers into the porcupines’ space, they respond with shrieks and threats, broadly signaling to their new keeper that he needs to be more mindful of their boundaries. (Damon apparently disagrees.)
Type #4: People are (mostly) bad.
Recent examples: War Horse, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Explanation: Philosophically irreconcilable with the previous type, the misanthropic films of this category illustrate the reality that people harm animals, even with the best of intentions. There are very few movies of this type, since they propose the radical beliefs that human beings are destructive creatures that mindlessly destroy animals’ lives, that the rest of the animal kingdom would thrive without our existence, even that animals have the right to exterminate us as a dangerous, rival species.
Even before Caesar the chimpanzee (Andy Serkis) is imprisoned and cruelly experimented on, Rise of the Planet of the Apes suggests that humans are morally lacking creatures. James Franco’s scientist character is too self-absorbed to help his senile father (John Lithgow) use a fork correctly, and their screaming neighbor lacks total sympathy for Lithgow’s clearly mentally impaired character. No wonder Caesar yearns for a home elsewhere. (Clip starts at 00:42).
Type #5: Animals are bad and want to kill you (so you better kill them first).
Recent examples: The Grey, Shark Night 3D
Explanation: In this category, animals are the Grim Reaper. Death might constitute a character’s comeuppance, illustrate the frailty of human life against the brute forces of nature, or suggest the cold randomness of bad luck. But no matter the rationale, the end (by animal bite) is inescapable. When a character dies from a critter attack, it feels like nature’s machines turning its gears. When he survives — because, let’s face it, those scenarios tend to involve macho, macho men — we can all breathe a sigh of relief, comforted by the illusion that we can fight for another day.
In The Grey, Liam Neeson, a wolf-killer by trade, attempts to outrun a pack of wolves after a plane crash leaves him stranded in the Alaskan wilderness. By the film’s final scenes, however, the pack has caught up to him, and has him struggling to die with dignity. Because Neeson is the main character, the wolf pack considerately allows him to browse through his wallet pictures one last time to soft, sad music before they rip him to tiny, little pieces. Death, be not lupine.
Inkoo Kang is a Boston-based film journalist and regular contributor to BoxOffice Magazine whose work has appeared in Pop Matters and Screen Junkies. She reviews stuff she hates, likes, and hate-likes on her blog THINK-O-VISION.