Let’s face it: In most films about animals, the animals die. I still meet adults who recall the trauma they felt when Bambi’s mother died in 1942’s animated Bambi. Film and television shows that involve animals work well because they touch our hearts and teach us about life, nature and ourselves.
It seems that the first animal to be featured in a film was Jean, a female border collie, in The Vitagraph Dog, circa 1906. Jean made $25 a week and starred in several short films. All of Jean’s films are said to be lost.
After Jean came Strongheart, a German shepherd and police dog from Germany. Strongheart appeared in the first film adaptation of Jack London’s novel White Fang in 1925. The Return of Boston Blackie seems to be the canine’s only film still in existence.
A producer discovered a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin, a performer in a dog show. The producer convinced the owner, who had brought the dog back from France at the end of World War I, that “Rinty” could be the next Strongheart. Rinty’s first role was as a dog raised by wolves and turned into man’s best friend in Where the North Begins in 1923. And the dog, as a loyal hero, is movie history.
Marley & Me
The most popular dog film of all time in terms of box office was Marley & Me in 2008. Based on the best-selling memoir by John Grogan, Marley is the yellow Labrador retriever that John (Owen Wilson) is advised to buy when his wife, Jenny (Jennifer Aniston), starts talking about having children. John’s friend, Sebastian (Eric Dane), tells him that Marley will be a test to see if they are ready to raise a family.
Marley is incorrigible and his behavior causes laughter and embarrassment for the young couple. When Jenny miscarries their first child, Marley is a comfort. John begins writing a newspaper column based on Marley’s antics that supports his growing family. At one point, Jenny seems to be suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of their second child. She wants to get rid of Marley, but realizes he is part of the family.
While it’s true that Babe (1995) is about a pig, it’s the story of a pig that wants to be a sheepdog. Babe is adapted from the 1983 novel by Dick King-Smith, and its use of both real-life animals and animatronics earned an Oscar for special effects. The film is charming and it effortlessly celebrates the qualities of leadership, respect, self-esteem and empathy.
Winnie the Pooh
Released last July, this latest Disney version of A.A. Milne’s classic characters shows them solving problems in the utopia of the Hundred Acre Wood. The film is based on three of Milne’s original anthropomorphic stories about the stuffed animals that belong to a real-life boy, Milne’s son, Christopher Robin.
What I love about this film is its low-tech approach to animation that skillfully integrates the pages of the book and the illustrations. The very words come to life. Besides choosing the good of another over one’s self, the film celebrates the joy of storytelling and literacy.
Born to be Wild
This documentary is about two women working in different parts of the world to save orangutans and elephants. Through the narration of Morgan Freeman, we learn about Daphne Sheldrick’s work in Kenya to rescue orphaned elephants, then rehabilitate and restore them to the wild. Biruté Mary Galdikas has spent most of her life in Indonesia where she carries out similar work for orangutans.
Sheldrick and Galdikas must also advocate for the preservation of the threatened habitats and against poaching for these endangered species. The work of both women has been reported on television over the years.
Dolphin Tale, starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr., is based on the inspiring true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin who lost her tail in a crab trap off the coast of Florida. She was rescued and fitted with a prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It was not an easy task as she had already learned to swim in a way that, unless helped, would eventually cripple her further.
Dolphin Tale parallels Winter’s story with that of two children of single parents, and a returning soldier wounded in Iraq. Although the film is in 3D, the story is beautiful in its simplicity. The courage of some of the children who visit Winter goes right for the heart.
Milo and Otis
I asked my Facebook friends what their favorite dog movies were. Several chose the Beethoven films that first launched in 1992, My Dog Skip (2000) and Turner and Hooch (1989—a personal favorite of mine). But Milo and Otis (1986), about a dog and a cat raised together, was mentioned many times.
One father wrote: “It teaches good family values as well as values associated with true, lasting friendship. It shows that simple relationships are better because they are straightforward and caring, not complicated and selfish.”
Seabiscuit and Secretariat
Horse movies, starting with National Velvet (1944), are almost always successful. Seabiscuit (2003) was an unlikely champion: His wins uplifted a discouraged nation during the Great Depression. What his jockey, Red (Tobey Maguire), says in the film reflects what most animal movies are about: “You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us, every one of us, and I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other, too.”
Secretariat (2010) is also a true story about another unexpected champion thoroughbred horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973—the ninth horse to do so since the event began in 1919. The film weaves in the story of a woman’s dream and the tension of being a wife and mother. Actual clips of Secretariat’s wins are integrated into the movie, giving it a true “reality” feel.
It’s Me or the Dog, Animal Planet, check listings: British dog trainer Victoria Stilwell took her cue from the show SuperNanny and realized she could do for dog owners what Jo Frost did for parents: teach respect and discipline to the adults and create a better training environment for dogs. She also
addresses specific problem canine behaviors.