Monday, January 22, 2007

Please Don’t Kill The Animals

In the last couple of years, several animated films have used animals as major characters. Now I am told by my friends in that business that the studios are looking to buck this trend. They feel that the audience is growing tired of watching animals. I find this baffling. Animal stories did not emerge in the world with the advent of computer-generated animation, and will be with us long after we have moved on to some new technique.

We cannot help but see ourselves in the behavior and habits of animals. How many times have you heard someone say about his or her dog, “He thinks he’s a person”? (A more accurate statement might be, “I think my dog is a person.”)

People constantly equate human and animal behaviors; they always have. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear a person say of someone, “That guy really squirrels away his money.” In fact, here is a short list of such sayings:

• Those guys live like pigs
• She watched me like a hawk
• Men are dogs
• Those guys are really butting heads
• She eats like a bird
• He’s stubborn as a mule
• She needs to come out of her shell
• Those two go at it like a couple of rabbits
• He’s a leech

Creative people have used animals in storytelling for all of human history. The ancient Greeks believed that by observing the way a beehive was organized and following that model you could have a perfect society.

Many tribal peoples believe that one has an animal spirit guide and by following that animal’s lead one might have an easier time at life. Tribal people also believe that we have an animal side to our natures, what Carl Jung calls a “bush soul.” So, not only do we see ourselves in animals, but also we see the animal within ourselves.

But why do we use animals in stories, particularly? Because it is a way to look at ourselves with a little distance.

One of my favorite storytellers, Aesop, used animal stories to illuminate the nature of human beings. If the story of the Tortoise and the Hare were merely what the title suggests few would remember the story. No, this is a story about people -- people “dressed” for the story like a Tortoise and a Hare -- but people nonetheless.

In the American South, during the time of slavery, the slaves told stories of the clever Brer (Brother) Rabbit. These were not stories of rabbits, foxes and bears, but stories about people designed to help them survive their cruel circumstances, stories about slaves outwitting their masters to get what they needed.

George Orwell’s book Animal Farm uses that distance to reveal how people in power can abuse that power. And Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus uses cats as Nazis and mice as Jews to give the reader just enough emotional distance to see a Holocaust story through fresh eyes.

Less seriously, Daffy Duck provides the distance necessary to notice our greedy natures and laugh at ourselves.

If using animals to tell stories is just a trend, then it is a trend that stretches back to the beginning of time. Maybe Hollywood needs to realize that the animals in their films did not write the stories they are telling. If people are tired of those, then it is not the animals that are to blame.


benton jew said...

Great post about a very useful storytelling device! A lot of stories can't be told in any other way. That "distance" you spoke of allows the viewer to be less judgemental about a character's behavior because they are animals. It's a great device that allows you to create a broader interpretation of a character without being saddled within the confines of being "realistic"

It's kind of a shame that the shortsightedness of some Hollywood execs may hinder the use of an extremely effective storytelling device. I'm guessing that a lot of this attitude comes from the confusion over a bunch of similarly themed animal movies over the past few years. "Antz" vs. "A Bug's Life", "A Shark Tale" vs. "Finding Nemo", "Madagascar" vs. "Wild Life", "Over The Hedge" vs. "Open Season" --and the list goes on. I think a lot of this was intentional-- perhaps execs trying to create confusion between films to dillute the popularity of another. Perhaps it's a bit of oneupsmanship like "my hippo movie is better than your hippo movie" or something--who knows? Sounds kind of cynical, but that's Hollywood.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

I think it's primarily the quality of the animated animal films that's hurting things, and tempting this conclusion. Of course, the two biggest grossers in animation are animal films, but I guess that won't be remembered until the next one hits.

This happens a lot. If a certain type of film doesn't make money, then the genre's declared 'dead' until it hits again. It's happened to the musical (until Chicago), the western (until Unforgiven), the science-fiction film (until Star Wars), and it's happening to hand-drawn animation right now.

Jamie Baker said...

Yeah, it's true. The only Genre of films that is immune from this kind of knee-jerk analysis is Badly Made Movies.

Brian McD said...

I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow the idea of the quality of a film has gone out the window. The reason films fail is blamed on everything but the actual quality of the film itself. It’s always, “People like are tired of animals”. Or, “Westerns are out”. Or whatever. Or, “the film was released at the wrong time, it’s really a summer movie and they released it at Christmas.

Let me ask you something? Have you EVER in your life seen a great film and not told your friends to see because it was released at the wrong time of the year?

Here is a little formula I worked out for Hollywood: Make a great film and people will see it. (This is almost always true)

A good film (a good story well-told) trumps genre. It’s crazy but it’s true. I’m old enough to remember who went to see the first Star Wars film – everybody. Not just kids. Not just sci-fi geeks, not just people dressed as Jawas . Not just comic book nerds – everybody.

Tell a good story. Those four words are the key to the kingdom, but Hollywood is deaf and cannot hear them.