Politics, culture, and identity are complicated, and there are often many questions and uncertainties we have that have no clear solution. Consequently, we look for answers in a variety of abstract places, even projecting human ideas and questions onto animals. Animals are perceived as innocent, and their struggles may resemble ours, but we go into their stories with fewer preconceived biases as they are often a blank slate. They rely on primal instincts to eat, sleep, and reproduce, anything beyond this is more associated with humanity. They can be used allegorically to represent complex ideas and information, making the topics more palatable for viewers of varied backgrounds. These methods can craftily navigate around humans’ biases towards certain topics, allowing ideas to be imagined in less confrontational and more subvert ways.
Using Animals For Perspective
Many viewers shy away from a film that pores over the complexities of race or class, but if these ideas subtly construct the background and theme of a story that, on its face is more welcoming, viewers will be more open. Animals allow the question “what if” to be examined from a variety of perspectives without presumptions, allowing for viewers to open themselves up to considering the world in different ways that are often rooted in compassion. Some films use animals as sources of ire and villainy like Scar in The Lion King (1994) or the shark in Jaws (1975), but often they are framed as such within the narrative where the ultimate purpose is to make the viewer care about the other characters they are in opposition to. This makes the viewers feel involved in not just the world of the film, but connected to the other viewers sharing the same position as them. Animals used in film are more than figures that speak to the general human condition, bringing people together, but they are also used allegorically: some films use animals to bring up questions of class, race, purpose, environmental issues, and mental illness. Film is a powerful vehicle that transports viewers into different worlds, and animals are a great medium in these worlds. They serve as mediators for our anxieties and the challenging ideas that film allows us to confront, helping us learn more about ourselves and grow as well.
Disney, Animals, & Commentary
Disney is one of the major studios that prominently uses animals in their films as it can help capture the attention of children while not distracting from themes of friendship and love. One of these films was 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, a story of an upper-class family dog, Lady, falling in love with a stray mutt, Tramp, and the adversity they face. The class narrative is also more of a backdrop for the film, as there is no real specific focus on one side as superior, but there are details regarding the benefits of class that are present throughout the story. At one point in the film, Lady is caught by the dogcatcher and is taken to the pound, but there it’s quickly remarked that she is “too nice of a girl to be in this place,” and is quickly removed. Meanwhile, the strays remain locked up, fearing the dreaded “long walk” where they are escorted through the door no dog returns from. It is a commentary on the different ways in which class and the law often intersect, a stark departure from the otherwise playful children’s movie. The children watching the film will not walk away fully understanding the complexities behind this intersection, but the film does engineer a greater sense of empathy for those in different walks of life than your own, encouraging awareness for others’ unique struggles. The complex themes are behind cute animation and animals, and it does not erase them completely, but instead, it makes them easily digestible and understandable for all kinds of audiences. The nuance may not be there, but the door is opened for further discussion and awareness.
This same thing occurs in films like Stuart Little (1999), and Ratatouille (2007). Stuart Little, on the other hand, uses the small mouse Stuart to emphatically promote the idea of the found family. There is a blood-related family in the film, but Stuart’s presence tests their understanding of the term. The film aims to test people’s inherent prejudices against individuals that are not like them, members of their respective outgroups. The Little family can quickly look past the gigantic assumption that those from two walks of life—seen in comical proportions here with an actual mouse—cannot coexist with one another, let alone live together. Rodents like Stuart are generally perceived to be bothersome if not outright invaders. Ratatouille is a film whose main rodent is perceived this way, but this aids in the film’s profession of the idea that you can follow your passion despite the limitations life puts on you, like being a rat. Like some of these other films, it wears its theme on its sleeve as the line “anyone can cook” is continually told to the main characters and viewers throughout the film. No, it does not dive into some of the structural and cultural barriers that are in place that make this much more difficult than it seems, but it pushes the idea to the viewers that, regardless of these barriers, you should try to follow your dreams.
How Humans Use Animals in Storytelling
The documentary Grizzly Man (2005) from Werner Herzog encapsulates the whole conception of human’s using animals as storytelling mediums. He shines a light on how we use animals as an intermediary for navigating human ideas through the documentary’s subject, bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell himself looked for meaning in his life and found it through his relationship with the bears and nature, viewing himself as their protector. His perspective regarding the bears was problematic in that he was an intruder to their space, periodically interfering with the bears. The documentary leaves the question open as to where Treadwell’s fascination came from, but this pursuit of answers and fulfillment in nature, in animals, mirrors the way in which we anthropomorphize animals. We project not only our insecurities, but also the solutions that we have been unable to find. Animals can often be blank canvases with which we compare to ourselves. Animals are a conceptual bridge for boiling down the complexities of life into simple characters and interactions, as they can be whatever we want them to be. Human actors and characters carry the baggage of being linked to other projects and real life, unlike their animal counterparts. They allow us to understand our own existence in an environment that is constantly changing. Animals elicit reactions, and they will continue to be used as long as they are effective, and currently all signs indicate it will be effective for a while.