The 5 Types of Animal Movies
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.