No sooner had I finished reading Vicki Myron’s lovely if titularly overstated Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World when word came of a screen version in the works with Meryl Streep set to star. Hype moves so fast these days that there’s scarcely a chance to envision the adaptation that you would like to see. There is a lot of potential in the book’s premise, and I say that not just as the owner of a precocious two-year-old tabby (named Renko, after the main character in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of detective novels, beginning with Gorky Park). Dewey begins as a mythic origins tale with a kitten found in an Iowa library’s book depository on the coldest winter morning of the year, deepens into a bond between a cat and an owner who endures more than her share of health and family troubles, then broadens its scope into a twenty-year epic about the economic ravages inside the American Heartland. While a capable director and screenwriter could convey all of this, I fear the makers of Dewey will go for the cutesy tearjerking of Marley & Me—soften up the audience before landing the body-blows—as well as overplay the opposition to the shocking notion of a cat living in a library. Expect the shrill woman who threatens to walk her cow through town (given only a cursory mention in Myron’s book) to be elevated to supervillain status.
“Never work with animals or children,” W.C. Fields famously opined, but he had nothing to worry about. Movies about animals have been relatively few, and good movies about animals even fewer. Much of the reason, I think, is a reluctance or refusal to take animals on their own terms. Documentarians can plant down their cameras in the tall grass and wait (and whatever you do, don’t intervene on behalf of that poor gazelle), but dramatists rarely have that luxury. Of course I mean “luxury” facetiously: nature filmmakers typically endure innumerable hardships and risk injury or death, but that’s nothing from the narrow prism of a studio director pulling out his hair in frustration because the damn collie won’t hit her mark. Movie-lore is riddled with tales of uncooperative beasts causing all kinds of burdens, so that by the umpteenth take it’s understandable, the temptation, to just pack up and leave Timmy down that well. No, it’s become far easier to animate and anthropomorphize animals onscreen. Anything with penguins is virtually guaranteed a green-light; and if they can talk, so much the better.
Yet animals, for all their difficulties, can be enthrallingly cinematic. Animals have a spontaneity, a naturalism, a genuine screen presence. They can be protagonists or antagonists, the stars of the show or reliable scene-stealers. Some are reliable jokers; others have touching gravitas. While the verdict on Dewey will have to wait, there are still plenty of possibilities to consider for this post. Here are my five animal-themed movies:
1. The Black Stallion (1979): Carroll Ballard is the undisputed master of the genre. Four of the six feature films to his credit involve animals in major roles, and all would be worthy candidates for this list. I chose to exclude Never Cry Wolf (1983) because the movie, while very well-made, feels a little dated and remote (although a dream screening with Ashley Judd and Sarah Palin would spice things up). Fly Away Home (1996) is beautiful but suffers from the retroactive squirminess of Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin playing father and daughter before their less-wholesome relationship in The Squid and the Whale (which, it should be emphasized, is about neither squids nor whales). His most recent film, the barely-released Duma (2005), puts an engaging spin on The Call of the Wild in charting an adopted cheetah’s return to its natural habitat. Duma makes for an interesting bookend with The Black Stallion, Ballard’s first movie and still his best.
Comparisons to Jack London are apt. Thematically, The Black Stallion is Ballard’s version of White Fang, a journey from the wild to society. An untamed Arabian horse survives a shipwreck, lands on a deserted island with a ten-year-old boy (Kelly Reno), returns with him to the States, and becomes a semi-domesticated racing champ under the tutelage of Mickey Rooney. The second half of the film, though entertaining, is nonetheless a bit of a letdown following the spellbinding first hour, which begins on the ship with the boy’s doomed father (the wonderful Hoyt Axton, incontrovertibly setting the tone) and continues through the wordless twenty-five minute island passage, as boy and horse gradually form a bond. A director who always takes nature on its own terms, Ballard’s visual style (fully realized by the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) blends contradictory impulses into a singular whole. At once naturalistic and mythic, sensual and muscular, his accomplishment with this film was championed relentlessly by Pauline Kael, who closed her epochal essay “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” with an anecdote about seeing The Black Stallion that reflected my own experience and has since become my own litmus test for movies aimed at kids. “There was a hushed, attentive audience, with no running up and down the aisles and no traffic to the popcorn counter,” she wrote, “and even when the closing credits came on, the children sat quietly looking at the images behind the names. There may be a separate God for the movies, at that.”
2. White Hunter, Black Heart (1990): Clint Eastwood abandons his orangutan drinking buddy for a different kind of animal in this ambitious film, which he directed during a creatively fertile period right after Bird (not about birds) and right before Unforgiven. A thinly-veiled chronicle of the behind-the-scenes making of The African Queen, Eastwood initially seems to have miscast himself as the expansive, loquacious, pathologically reckless director John
Huston Wilson; yet like Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast, he settles into the role the further he goes outside of his comfort zone. Arriving in Africa with one of his screenwriters (virtual non-entity Jeff Fahey) to finish the script and scout locations, Wilson goes on safari and develops an unhinged obsession with shooting an elephant that threatens to sink the production before it starts.
White Hunter’s witty, incisive script (co-written by Peter Viertel, based on the book he wrote about his experiences on The African Queen) depicts Hollywood jackals out of their element within the actual animal kingdom. Animal motifs flow through the film (a monkey snatches the screenplay’s pages from an anxious producer, a daft wannabe writer pitches an idea about a movie starring a dog with a case of “mistaken identity”), and the elephants themselves are more of a psychological state until the anger of one confronted tusker becomes terrifyingly real. Invariably dismissive of Eastwood’s work, Kael never would have lauded him with the same praise she bestowed on Ballard: that he makes you feel “as though (you’re) rediscovering the emotional sources of mystery and enchantment.” Yet Eastwood, overreaching on his own compelling terms, is onto something ineffable, best expressed in a scene where another character claims that killing an elephant is a crime, and Wilson counters that it’s something more. “It’s a sin ... a sin you can get a license for and go out and do,” he declares. “That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else ... Do you understand me? Of course you don’t. How could you? I don’t understand myself.” A bracing admission from one of our most self-aware screen icons.
3. Babe: Pig in the City (1998): Hollywood doesn’t make disasters like it used to. Nowadays publicists are in such firm command of their craft that even a movie that’s universally mocked or reviled can recoup most of its cost; but arguably it was this film (or possibly Bennifer’s Gigli) that became the last truly epic box-office bomb. George Miller, who produced the adored original Babe, took the helm in directing this full-throttled sequel, which takes risks in a deliriously unstable manner that would have earned the approval of John Huston but was off-putting to audiences seeking the comforts of family fare. James Cromwell’s kindly Farmer Hoggett is horrifyingly injured in the first five minutes, prompting Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) to take their famed sheep-pig to the Big City (a dazzling amalgam of New York, Paris, Sydney, and other metropolises) in order to avoid foreclosure. The movie’s central set-piece in a (literally) fleabag hotel drops Babe into a menagerie of fellow animals, who are led by a couple of chimps owned by a circus clown. (Mickey Rooney, unbelievably, again.) The stakes from the first Babe are raised even higher this time around, with dangers ranging from animal control officers (in a scene reminiscent of the military personnel invading the home in E.T.) to a chef with an insatiable taste for ham.
Miller (who recently bounced back with an Oscar-winning hit featuring animated penguins—good instincts, George) pushes his idiosyncratic vision so aggressively that at times it becomes exhausting. Yet like Stephanie Zacharek, I found myself mesmerized by the movie’s “spell of craziness” and admiring Pig in the City as a talking-animal movie that refuses to anthropomorphize its creatures, treating them as worthy of respect. Miller is especially good at getting inside their heads, as regular House commenter Bruce Reid noted regarding the film’s “rapturous glimpse of doggie heaven” from the point-of-view of an unconscious canine. Speaking of comfort zones, taking the audience out of theirs is clearly where Miller finds his own.
4. Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986): Pets, while commonplace in movies, usually do nothing more than hover along the fringes of the story or are used as cheap plot devices. (A friend’s daughter calls them “dead dog movies.”) Paul Mazursky’s buoyant comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills (a loose remake of the French film Boudu Saved from Drowning) is one of only a few I can think of that treats an animal—in this case, a remarkable dog named Mike—as a legitimate part of the ensemble. Mazursky had already somewhat achieved this years earlier with Harry and Tonto (not about Indians); but in portraying Matisse, the spoiled, neurotic pet of the mindbogglingly affluent and dysfunctional Whiteman family (led by an equally nimble Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler), Mike is alloted more personality and nuance than almost anybody passing for human in contemporary farce. When a homeless man (Nick Nolte, in one of his unsung great performances) loses his own beloved pooch and tries to drown himself in the Whitemans’ pool, Matisse consoles him in a moment that’s deeply affecting. Nolte’s Jerry, a pathological liar with highbrow taste, moves in at the insistence of Dreyfuss’s Dan, a success in the coat-hanging business (an amusing touch) who feels guilty about his wealth. A memorable scene at the beach climaxes with Jerry, who claims to have been an actor, reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy “What a piece of work is man”; and indeed, this paragon of animals takes over the Whiteman household with Matisse perpetually at his side.
A moment where Midler’s Barb quotes her New Age guru’s philosophy about everyone being part of the same continuum is intended as a laugh line; but there’s no better description of Mazursky’s generous worldview, which he demonstrates by including Matisse within the framework of nearly every scene, often panning seamlessly from dog to human or vice-versa rather than always relying on edited inserts. (There are some of these too.) The comic high-water mark occurs when Jerry breaks down Barb’s considerable defenses with a full-body massage that turns into a desperate tumble on the bed. Nolte seduces her, as he does everyone else; and Mike’s reaction to Midler’s earth-shaking orgasm may be the funniest moment I’ve ever seen from an animal on film.
5. Winged Migration (2001): In recent years a smattering of documentaries about animals have enjoyed success beyond the Discovery Channel, and this one about the migratory patterns of birds is the most exhilarating. Less overbearing (sorry) than Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and less rote than March of the Penguins (one critic observed that “Morgan Freeman narrates a little too knowingly, as if he’d had previous experience being a penguin himself”), Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration is best viewed—according to one of the filmmakers on the “Making Of” DVD featurette—as neither documentary nor fiction, but rather an impressionistic “nature tale.” This framework is helpful in overlooking some of the film’s contrivances; yet while there is integrity in depicting the myriad dangers of flight, it gets undercut by the lack of clarity as to whether or not these threats (hunters, combines, crabs) are staged. Overall, though, the movie’s poetic spirit transcends all flaws. A sequence following a flock of Canadian geese through Monument Valley down to a near-futile search for water around a jalopy abandoned along a desert highway is a trajectory through the cinematic landscape of John Ford to something resembling an ominous moment from the Coens. Winged Migration captivates by depicting something that’s easy to take for granted. To put a spin on the original Superman’s tagline, you will believe that a bird can fly.