Animals In The Arts – Movies Val Cairney
Hi everyone, and thank you for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets. Last episode I talked about Animals in Arts and the TV animal stars that generations had known and loved. It was super fun revisiting some stars like Rin Tin Tin, Flipper, Skippy and of course Lassie. But, as we know, the amount of animals in the movies are extensive. Rin Tin Tin for example, had his own TV show, but started out in the movies. Lassie also had movies, so there was quite a cross-over as several animal stars went from film to TV. In film, there are many stars so I thought I’d pick out what I thought to be the most popular. What I didn’t include was the documentary type films like Seabiscuit, Pharlap, Secretariat. So, let’s go to the movies and see who has been on the big screen.
It’s really hard to know where to start when it comes to animals in film. Instead of trying to go chronological, I thought I would start with films that starred animals that were translations of books or at very least inspired by a book. Let’s start with a real classic, Black Beauty. Black Beauty was a book written by Anna Sewell in 1877. Many adaptations of Black Beauty exist from the first film in 1921, another in 1946, 1971, 1978, 1987, 1994, 2020, to name a few. Black Beauty has gone through many changes and interpretations from the book, changing countries and characters. However, the basis of Beauty by author Anna Sewell shed light on the cruelty of handsome cab horses in Victorian England. Anna personified Beauty and her friends to highlight the horses’ anguish and despair. Beauty was a lovely black colt and having used Black Beauty many times while teaching Children’s Literature, the first sentence showed the first person narration as Beauty says, “The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end” (Sewell, 1) The first person narration allows the reader to experience the character first hand, as if they are right beside them. For Sewell this was imperative, as this would be the only way to get the reader to feel and experience the humiliation and cruelty felt by these working horses. Anna Sewell was accused of over use of sentimentality when she published her book, but for me, I believe these were critics that just didn’t get it. As for the films and how well this original objective was achieved is a matter of opinion, as there are several incarnations to choose from. Black Beauty translates to screen with beautiful black horses as Beauty. In the last remake, the story is quite changed as the original story is more of an inspiration. In this film Beauty is played by four different horses, Spirit, Jenny, Awards and Rosie. Although the original story is hard to watch and spoiler alert, Beauty does eventually find freedom from his cruelty, the story changed history and seeing this played out on the big screen with beautiful horse actors is a treasure.
A favourite of mine growing up was a book named The Incredible Journey. The book was written by Scottish author Sheila Burnford. In 1951 Sheila emigrated to Canada, living in Port Authur, Ontario. Sheila’s book was written in an objective voice, where the animals in the story did not talk and we had to glean their feelings and actions solely through their body language. The Incredible Journey was set in northwestern Ontario about three pets, two dogs and a cat, that set out to look for their owner and get quite lost in the wilderness. Tao the cat is Siamese, Luath is a Labrador and old Bodger is a Bull Terrier. I just loved this book and Disney had done an adaptation of the book in 1963. This adaptation stuck close to the original story, showing the dogs and cat navigating through their ordeal. The original film had four animal supervisors. Bodger the old Bull Terrier was played by a female dog that didn’t even receive credit. Luath the lab, was played by Rink. And Tao the cat was played by Muffy. The Incredible Journey took a major remake in Homeward Bound The Incredible Journey. Here the film switched to using a first person voice with animals, personifying them to be able to speak with each other. The addition of Michael J. Fox as one of the voices threw this film into the very popular range. In 1993 the film changed the breeds of the animals and their names. In the original the Bull Terrier was the older dog, but in this film the older dog was the lab/golden retriever and the young dog was the Terrier/American BullDog. The cat became a female Himalayan. The journey also was through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not the Ontario Wilderness. The pet’s names were Chance, Sassy the cat and Shadow. Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey was a tremendous hit, but it wouldn’t have been so without the original book by Sheila Burnford. The original Disney version was quite a feat as well, using the real animals to act out the story. Sheila attended several shootings of the film watching in amazement as her words came to life. Plus, quite a bit of the film was actually shot right on my doorstep. I wasn’t around then for that but it is nice to know that back in the day, a film crew was in my area with the animals that I so loved in this story.
Another real favourite of mine is Babe. How could anyone not like the film Babe? Babe was based on a book by Dick King-Smith called The Sheep-Pig written in 1983. The premise is basically that a little pig wants to work like a sheep dog. The film came out in 1992 and was filmed in New South Wales, Australia. The movie took on a limited omniscient voice where the animals talked but only they and the audience could hear them. Mr. Hoggett the farmer eventually enters Babe in a sheep trial and not without challenge, Babe wins of course. According to mentalfloss.com, it took 48 different pigs to play the role of Babe. Pigs grow rapidly, so the crew “utilized four dozen Large White Yorkshire piglets throughout the course of filming, shooting six at a time over a three-week period.” Interesting as well is that the pig used in the wide shot was actually an animatronic pig. And due to modesty all the pigs that played Babe were female. Babe had a lot of different farm animals and many, many sheep. Mentalfloss states that, “all told there were nearly 970 animals used for the film. This included pigs and dogs, of course cats, cows, horses, ducks, goats, mice, pigeons, and sheep too.” Now this really shows the influence of film. “In December 1995, just four months after Babe hit theaters, Vegetarian Times ran a story about the problems facing the pork industry. The film Babe was cited as a contributor to the five year low in sales. Also, many people became vegetarians after seeing Babe and one such convert was James Cromwell the actor who played Mr. Hoggett. Babe was such an amazing film and I certainly have seen it several times. Babe had seven Academy Award nominations, best picture included. It walked away with Best Visual Effect. But many of us know it was the best picture!
I want to talk now about another film from a book that starred an animal and that is ‘Because of Winn Dixie’. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I recommend both. Because of Winn Dixie was written by Kate DiCamillo, who has won the Newberry Medal on a few occasions, with Because of Winn Dixie being one of them. DiCamillo wrote this book in 2000 which was adapted to film in 2005. Because of Winn Dixie is all about making judgments, particularly judging others by their appearance. Because of Winn Dixie centers on a girl named Opal who has moved to a trailer park in a small town in Florida. While in the grocery store Winn-Dixie, she sees a scruffy dog in the store wrecking everything and so decides to take him home and names him Winn Dixie. The story is great and through Opal’s desire to care for Winn Dixie she meets an array of interesting people that although quite different from each other, become friends. According to Wikipedia, Winn-Dixie was “played by multiple Picardy Shepherds, a rare breed from France. Although there were only two principal dogs, Scott and Lyco, four were used for these roles. According to imdb.com, the director wanted to use Picardy Shepherds because he thought they looked similar to the depiction of Winn-Dixie on the book cover.” The film interprets Kate DiCamillo’s book well, as the pivotal position of bringing friendships and healing to many is all because of a scruffy dog named Winn Dixie.
While we are on Newberry Medal winning children’s books, we must include Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte’s Web written by E.B. White in 1952 is a classic that demonstrates the theme of friendship as a gamble with an unlikely pair of friends; Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig. Wilbur like Babe is set to become Christmas dinner and in this case super intelligent and clever Charlotte finds a way to make Wilbur miraculous so that the farmer will not ever kill him. The secondary theme of death is looming always as Wilbur must escape his fate and Charlotte as a spider cannot escape hers. In 2006 Charlotte’s Web was produced into a live-action film with Dakota Fanning in the human role of Fern. The animals in the film were voiced by major stars, including Julia Roberts as Charlotte. Like Babe, Charlotte’s Web was filmed in Australia. Although there were many actual animals used in Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig and Templeton the rat were completely CGI. Oh well!!
Let’s take a look at some other films that starred animals. In 1989 a young Tom Hanks starred in a very successful film called Turner and Hooch. In this film, a young, uptight police detective inherits a junk-yard dog and eventually through trials and tribulations realizes that Hooch can help him solve murder cases. Hooch was a big slobbery dog that made for some hilarious interactions with as always a brilliant Tom Hanks. And apparently Tom had a great relationship with all the Hooches and the two in particular that he worked with most closely.
Apparently Hooch was played by Dogues de Bordeaux. Beasley, Barry and Vigor did the main acting, but there were also stand-in dogs too. According to Turner and Hooch behind the scenes, Tom Hanks had to do some training as well. “The trainer would give Tom Hanks the little clicker and Tom would make the click and the dog would look at him. And from then on, until he handed the clicker back, the only person Hooch was interested in (was)Tom.” And I love this tidbit about the movie from whatsondisneyplus.com, “None of the dogs who played Hooch liked the cargo hold of a plane. So in the contract, all flights – to set, to media appearances – came with a private Learjet. All was good until one flight, where there was turbulence. You see, there’s no such thing as a seatbelt for a massive dog. The pilots panicked about the fate of the dog – he was fine- but (they) didn’t want to fly the prized passenger after that.”
Let’s finish off with a rather interesting film that came out in 1988. Back to being a film based on a book, The Bear was based on the book The Grizzly King written in 1916 by James Oliver Curwood. The Wikipedia summary shares that the film, The Bear “tells the story of an orphaned grizzly bear cub who befriends a large adult male Kodiak bear as two trophy hunters pursue them through the wild” The film like the original Incredible Journey uses objective voice for the bears where we glean the story by watching the animals and their interactions and reactions. The story has the viewer watch as these two bears are relentlessly pursued by hunters. The Kodiak at one point defends the cub from a pack of hunting dogs suffering terrible wounds. He has to flee and unfortunately has to leave the cub behind in a cave. The hunters find the cub and take him to their camp, tethering him to a tree where he is tormented by the dogs. The hunters plot to massacre the Kodiak but don’t realise that he is actually watching them. In the morning the hunters split up to find him and one of them is confronted by the Kodiak. The Kodiak observes the hunter at his mercy and decides not to kill him and leaves. This hunter is completely taken aback by the act of mercy on the bear’s part. He tries to then scare him off by firing his gun. When the other hunter joins him “Tom lies that the bear is dead. When Bill catches sight of the Kodiak, he raises his rifle to shoot, only to be intercepted by Tom, who insists they let the animal go free. The three hunters return to their camp empty-handed, where they release the cub and then ride off into the wilderness.” It takes a bit, but the bears are reunited and find shelter together and hibernate for the winter.
This story takes place in British Columbia Canada, but was filmed entirely in the Italian and Austrian areas of the Dolomites. Some animatronic bears were used courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But the Kodiak bear was played by Bart the Bear who had quite a career in film and TV. A young bear named Douce played the cub. Three trainers worked with Bart and eleven with the cubs.
The legacy of the film The Bear was quite profound. The reformed hunter “is a direct reference to the original novel and its author, James Oliver Curwood, himself a past hunter and trapper.” The elements of orphanhood, peril and protection run strongly through this film as does the most important, that of mercy. The book The Grizzly King was said to be a confession of one who for years hunted and killed before he learned that the wild offered a more thrilling sport than slaughter. During its American release, the film used one of Curwood’s famous quotes as a tagline – The greatest thrill is not to kill but to let live – and the film was endorsed by both the American Humane Association and the World Wildlife Fund.” The Bear never anthropomorphized the bears, nor personified them. The film allowed humans to see into the day to day survival of wild animals. The scene of mercy given by the Kodiak is said to have actually happened to the author of The Grizzly King who gave up hunting and became a conservationist. I remember watching this film and being lulled into the sanctity of the little cubs life with his mother until tragedy took her away and being terrified and angry at the pursuit of these two creatures, particularly the Kodiak who was just foraging and looking for a winter haven. What had he done wrong? Why would he deserve to have his carcass spread in front of a home fireplace? The fact that he made it to adulthood in an unforgiving wilderness was in and of itself miraculous. His taking on of the orphaned cub and protecting him, shows the sentient nature of animals that is so often disregarded or not believed. This film changed a lot of minds and fostered a lot of conservationists.
There are so many more films that maybe I’ll visit at another time. Films can entertain and enlighten. When it comes to animals in film, there is no doubt they can really get people out to the cinema. There is nothing like a good laugh and cry while watching Marley and Me, or the amazing feats of Air Bud. We need more films like Black Beauty and The Bear that educate about the plight many animals endure, but we also need the Turner and Hooch film that make us laugh and cry and films like Babe and Winn Dixie that allow us to see the influence animals have on our lives.
So to close the curtain on this episode of ‘Animals in the arts – the movies’, I say thanks for joining me, with a strong suggestion that you research more about these wonderful cinematic stars, because as I say, knowing is caring.
Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.
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