The Cinematic Animal

Films, animals and unordered speculation

Guest post on Sidekick Books blog

I was lucky enough to be invited to guest post on the blog for the poetry publisher Sidekick Books. You can read the post, which talks about the relationship between the birds and humans in Hitchcock’s The Birds, here:


Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson’s beguiling Fantastic Mr Fox has at its centre about six main characters, a familiar collective of damaged egoists, romantics and amiable wunderkinds who resemble nothing so much as other Anderson characters, tails and independently mobile pinnae notwithstanding. The eponymous hero, informally known as Foxy (voiced by George Clooney), is a charming but flawed husband and father with adequacy issues; his wife, Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep), is an artistic soul trying to keep her family from sliding into dysfunctionality; their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is an insecure, petulant kid whose athletic talent is much bigger in his imagination than it is in reality (see Ash discussing his ‘raw natural talent’ with his coach here); Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), Ash’s cousin, is a peculiarly sad sports star and karate guru; Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) is a spaced-out opossum; and Badger (Bill Murray) is a top-flight attorney with dreams of working as a demolitions expert.

Obviously, these are not characterisations that have a great deal of connection to real-life animals, or even to Roald Dahl’s animal characters, who – as Deborah Ross points out in a negative review here – never got to ride around on motorbikes or write newspaper columns. Fox and many of the animals are good at digging, but they otherwise behave in ways almost exclusively associated (perhaps mistakenly) with humans. In one of the film’s running jokes, Fox repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘wild animal’ in the style of a Manhattan analysand trying to come to terms with his animal nature. ‘Who am I?’ he asks Kylie. ‘I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? … And how can a fox ever be happy without a, a – you’ll forgive the expression – a chicken in its teeth.’

Fox and KylieFox explains his existential worries to a nonplussed Kylie

Ross criticises this kind of strong anthropomorphism on the grounds that it is a betrayal of the spirit of the book and its simpler, less forcefully ‘humanised’ characters. I think the film’s animal characterisations might also be found wanting by critics of anthropomorphism itself, a practice that is often seen as a kind of species-wide narcissism, a projection of human emotions and behaviours onto animals that betrays humans’ essential inability to think beyond themselves. Under this view, the film would be guilty, like many other films, of what Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman describe as a ‘provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home’ (1).

But do we really know that humans like to anthropomorphise purely because they are convinced of their own centrality in the universe? Could we here perhaps be guilty of making unfounded claims about our own nature? One alternative hypothesis offered by Daston and Mitman is that anthropomorphism might sometimes express less human arrogance than human desire to genuinely emphasise with the Other. Our anthropomorphisation of animals might be seen as a kind of response to species loneliness: ‘an intense yearning to transcend the confines of self and species, to understand from the inside or even to become an animal’ (2).

This is just a theory, of course, and I wouldn’t want to assume that it’s exactly right. But certainly I think a lot of people will recognise this kind of desire to live outside of themselves in some way, and certainly it seems right to say that many animals in films are appealing because they are, to some extent, Other at the same time as being, to some extent, ‘human’. The foxes of Fantastic Mr Fox are both highly familiar, acting and speaking in ways very similar to human characters in other films, and fascinatingly strange (perhaps particularly so, given the ambivalent attitudes we have historically had towards the fox; for more on this, see Martin Wallen’s book Fox). For one, they have whiskers, pointed teeth and real-looking fur. They are also, like the majority of animated animals, (roughly) to scale, a feature most clearly apparent, obviously, when an animal character occupies the same space as a human one, as in the poignant scene (below) in which a quivering Kristofferson is dangled by his foot by one of his human captors.

Kristofferson in troubleKristofferson is caught by the farmers

It’s hard to think that viewers don’t identify with animal characters of this kind as animals to some extent, on some occasions. Exactly to what extent this identification might be related to the way people form views of animals, I’m unsure, but I think we can at least say that even quite strong anthropomorphism and human empathy with the animal Other are not necessarily incompatible.


1. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, ‘Introduction’, in Daston and Mitman, Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 4.

2. Daston and Mitman, p. 7.

Works referenced

Ross, Deborah, ‘Animal Caper’, The Spectator, 24 October 2009.

Wallen, Martin, Fox (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation poster

It may not surprise anyone to find that a film about the inner workings of the fast food industry contains some uncomfortable truths and some disturbing images, and Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006) delivers a high number of both. I don’t know if the film has turned anyone vegetarian, but I am fairly sure that I finished watching the final scene – in which we are presented with images of cows being slaughtered and dismembered – looking like Jimmy as he exits the cattle slaughterhouse in the ‘Meat and You: Partners in Freedom’ infomercial in The Simpsons (Jimmy doesn’t turn vegetarian in the end, having been convinced by Troy McClure of the natural moral authority of the food chain and of cowkind’s latent disregard for human life).

To the disappointment of the Guardian’s reviewer (Peter Bradshaw; see here), though not of others (e.g. A. O. Scott in the New York Times), scenes such as this offering a direct, documentary-style exposé of the horrors of the meat industry are quite infrequent. The film does work into its narrative a considerable number of worrying details about the industry and its practices, drawn from the bestselling non-fiction book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (also the film’s co-writer). Near the start of the film, for example, we learn that a McDonald’s-type fast food corporation called Mickey’s has been knowingly selling burgers containing a significant amount of faecal matter – a revelation that the film’s main character, Mickey’s executive Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), initially has trouble processing. Other details concerning the ill treatment of meatpacking plant workers and the industry’s various deceptions emerge as Don investigates the burger production process. But such details, in a way familiar from the vast majority of ‘issue’-oriented fiction film (1), constitute just one thread running through a story of emotional dramas and aspirations: one character dreams of leaving behind her life in a dead-end town, another struggles to maintain a good relationship with her sister under difficult circumstances, and so on. As Linklater himself puts it, ‘Characters take you beyond the politics. You can watch a movie and like it without necessarily agreeing with what the director is saying.’ (2)

Should a critic of the fast food industry and its treatment of animals (or its attitude towards the environment or the safety of its consumers) feel as confident as Bradshaw in saying that Linklater – himself a vegetarian since his twenties, having been influenced by Peter Singer’s seminal book Animal Liberation – is here guilty of obscuring the issues and trading in truth for earnest sentiment? I’m not sure. My feeling is that a factual examination of a particular issue, whether it is a book or a documentary, probably does have more of a chance of directly changing someone’s perspective. But there are truths that are more easily or more effectively explored in narrative fiction, and it may be that these truths have as much as a bearing on a political reality as do more familiar types of facts about practices, policies, and so on. Among Fast Food Nation’s disturbing truths I would count several about human behaviour, one being the failure of even good people to speak out against immoral activity, even (or especially) if this activity is being carried out on a large scale. Don is a thoroughly nice guy who, in the end, cannot bring himself to sacrifice his career and his family’s stability to do something about the iniquities of the Mickey’s corporation. For Bradshaw, Don is an expression of the movie’s ‘defeatism’, but I would suggest that the character instead offers a note of complexity which brings into question simplistic and probably limiting oppositions between the good people of the world and the bad (for an outline of why it might be a good idea for activists and others to reject ‘saints and sinners’ thinking, see Peter Singer on the tactics of the animal rights activist Henry Spira, here (item five)).

Amber and DonDon and Amber cross paths at Mickey’s

The difficulties and costs involved in following one’s conscience are also emphasised in another plotline, in which Amber (Ashley Johnson), a bright college student and Mickey’s employee, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her participation in a system that she knows to be morally dubious. In one brilliantly played scene set at a party, Amber is drawn to a group of young activists who have been talking about corporate exploitation. After listening to them speak for a few minutes, she is called away by her best friend, who wants her to come and meet some guys she has been talking to. Amber, wanting to stay with the activists, declines. Her friend is baffled; ‘They’re so boring,’ she protests. They exchange a few more awkward words before finally parting ways, Amber clearly pained to see her idealism alienate her from her friend. Later scenes involving Amber address the issue of ethical action – particularly relating to animal welfare – more directly, but I’m glad Linklater and Schlosser were able to make a film where low-key observations about human nature form part of the picture.


1. For a good discussion of the treatment of social and political issues in US independent cinema (with which Linklater is often associated), see chapter 5 of Geoff King’s American Independent Cinema (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005).

2. See Xan Brooks, ‘I’ve Never Been in the Firing Line Like This Before’, The Guardian, 22 May 2006:

Works referenced

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Fast Food Nation’, The Guardian, 4 May 2007.

Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001).

Scott, A. O., ‘The Ties That Bind America’s Food Chain’, New York Times, 17 November 2006.

Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation, second edition (London: Pimlico, 1995).

Singer, Peter, ‘Ten Ways to Make a Difference’, in Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler, The Animal Ethics Reader, second edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 627–632.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke poster

About twenty minutes into Princess Mononoke (1997), Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy epic, there is a scene that I think qualifies as one of the stranger meet cutes in modern cinema, in which the film’s hero, Ashitaka, first encounters a mysterious female character called San, with whom he later develops a complicated but meaningful relationship. Ashitaka has stopped by a river, having come across two badly wounded men in need of help. Sensing some other nearby presence, he moves away upstream and sees, on the other side of the river, the forms of three wolves and a young woman. The young woman, San, is sucking blood from a wound in the side of the largest wolf. Ashitaka makes his move, stands up and announces himself as a traveller in search of the realm of the spirit of the forest. San stares fiercely back at him, blood round her mouth and a wolf pelt round her shoulders. Romantic music swells. They gaze at each other for several seconds. ‘Go away,’ she says finally, before riding off on one of the smaller wolves into the forest.

What the viewer already knows when this scene begins but Ashitaka does not is that it is the wolves and San (a human raised by wolves) who are responsible for the wounds of the men Ashitaka has been attending to. There is a war on: on one side are the humans, who clear the forests to mine iron ore and produce firearms; on the other are the forest animals, sentient beings led by giant beast gods who fight to defend their home. Both sides fight viciously, and the casualties mount by the day. It is Ashitaka and San who seem to together hold the possibility of achieving peace or reconciliation between the species, although San is also perhaps the animals’ most fearsome warrior: a supernaturally fast masked assailant who effortlessly overwhelms her human attackers. San saves Ashitaka’s life after he is accidentally shot by a human, but she remains loyal to the animals and her adoptive wolf ‘mother’ to the end, refusing at the film’s conclusion to stay with Ashitaka but agreeing to see him again whenever he is able to visit her in the forest.

San and AshitakaSan and Ashitaka part ways at the film’s close

Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s most beautiful films, and it never fails to move me. It’s also, as the anime critic Susan J. Napier suggests, an often unsettling work in which the feeling of nostalgia and pleasurable escape that suffuses many of the director’s earlier films is largely absent (1). The events of the narrative revolve around bitter enmities and personal losses, and characters often seem animated by conflicted emotions and desires. Napier identifies three central figures whose characterisations incorporate a particularly unconventional or ‘destabilising’ mix of features: San (young female heroine with unparalleled combat skills and a taste for confrontation), Eboshi, the leader of the humans (female figure of authority who cares for society’s outcasts but is utterly merciless in battle), and Moro, a terrifyingly ferocious giant wolf who is also wise and intelligent and acts as a caring mother to San (2). Of these characters, Moro seems to me to be a particularly unfamiliar type of character, one who has few equivalents that I can think of in cinema, animated or otherwise. Moro is marked by three characteristics that together set her apart from established wild-animal representations. First, she is clearly a wolf, rather than a wolfy-looking human wearing a jacket, or standing on her hind legs, or whatever else (this being a representation familiar from many children’s cartoons, as well as animal fables). Second, she is a subject who thinks, feels and remembers (that is, she is not a wild ‘beast’ who functions within the narrative only as threat). And third, she is a morally ambiguous character who is neither sentimentalised nor demonised and thus does not fit into the broad-strokes tradition of animal characterisation exemplified by Disney.

Moro’s characterisation, I would suggest, is part of a broad strategy within the film of subverting expectations about animal characters. Animals are presented both as Others and as beings with particular desires, thoughts, even politics. The viewer is frequently forced to reassess judgements made about animals (and many humans) in light of new narrative developments. I think it’s likely, for example, that someone watching the first twenty minutes of the film for the first time would assign wild animals to the ‘villains’ category; after all, he or she would have thus far been confronted with one giant demon boar who refers to humans as ‘disgusting little creatures’ and three wolves who attack a group of men and oxen and send several plummeting down the cliff face. It is only later that we are told that it is the humans who are responsible for filling the boar with hate and transforming him into a demon, and that the animals are angry and desperate because their land is being stolen from them. Animals in the film are both victims and aggressors, consumed by a hatred fuelled by pain and loss.

The boar demonAn avenging demon boar attacks the humans

Obviously, representations of animals such as those offered by the film involve some degree of anthropomorphism, a projection of recognisably human characteristics onto non-human animals that may or may not be justified. But equally, it would be fairly absurd to read the film as making an empirical claim about the emotional or moral lives of animals. Rather, Princess Mononoke asks us to see animal Others as an integral part of everyday life and, implicitly, to question simplistic categorisations of animals as, for instance, dumb beasts, natural resources to be exploited by humans, or cute and furry spectacles. As we learn more about animals and their behaviour and minds, this seems like an increasingly important thing to do.


1. Princess Mononoke is in fairly dramatic contrast in this respect to My Neighbour Totoro (1988), for example, which Napier describes as a ‘deeply nostalgic … quest for an imagined personal past’. Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 181.

2. Napier, pp. 181–185.

Jaws 3-D

Jaws 3-D poster

By my calculations, by the end of its third instalment, the Jaws franchise has clocked up 16 human deaths caused directly by sharks. The films’ four great whites (there is a baby in Jaws 3-D which may have killed a pair of minor characters) have between them taken care of one skinny-dipper, one boy, two SeaWorld technicians, two shark hunters, one fisherman, one swimmer, one water-skier, two coral thieves, two teenagers, two divers, one Harbor Patrol marine helicopter pilot and one Harbor Patrol marine helicopter.

It may not surprise you that Hollywood was here sensationalising, or that the number of human deaths caused by sharks in the real world was in fact very low: one confirmed in the entire year in the US in 1975 (the year Jaws was released), none in either 1978 (Jaws 2) or 1983 (Jaws 3-D) (1). Movies don’t have a lot of time for statistics, and most people know they don’t; we are probably all aware that in reality, we are less likely to be killed by a shark than be struck by lighting, or die from a bee sting, or whatever. But knowing this does not seem to make us less terrified or sharks, or to stop Hollywood’s producers turning out shark-starring horror films.

By the third and probably third-best Jaws film, Jaws 3-D (‘The third dimension is terror’, runs the tagline, confusingly for anyone expecting three spatial dimensions), the shark characters have actually been sentimentalised or ‘humanised’ to an extent, the two sharks being identified as a ‘baby’ and its ‘mother’ and the latter turning up after her young has been captured and accidentally killed by profit-hungry humans. On first discovering the shark in the SeaWorld park, senior marine biologist Kay (Bess Armstrong), the film’s moral conscience, persuades the park manager not to have it killed, and later defends it to her husband, describing it as a beautiful fish and emphasising their duty not to do anything to traumatise it. But if eco-conscious sentiments of this kind – expressed, stereotypically, by a woman with an innate ‘connection’ to nature, a familiar trope of cinema and culture in general (2) – mark the film apart from Jaws and Jaws 2, in its second half the film settles into a more familiar, action-conventional narrative in which there is little time for reflection; there is, after all, a 35-foot shark at large that seems intent on eating as many humans as possible. This is a shark that the main characters cannot have any qualms about killing.

Baby sharkKay tends to the baby …
Mother shark… and later faces the angry mother

Representations of sharks as the demon killers of the ocean are of course not new. In his book Shark, the professor of English Dean Crawford comes up with a large number of examples from the West’s cultural history, from John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson the Shark (1778), to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (1970), to various popular films and documentaries, including Live and Let Die (1973), the Jaws series and the Discovery Channel’s Great White Death (1981) and Anatomy of a Shark Bite (2005). ‘Depictions of sharks’, Crawford summarises, ‘are frequently not only exploitative and sensational but evince a tendency to credulity’ – a fact that he argues is a major cause of the ongoing global slaughter of sharks for meat and for other substances.

Watson and the SharkCopley’s Watson and the Shark

Certainly films that demonise sharks have in the past triggered large-scale social panic and, on the part of some, bloodlust. The first Jaws film inspired a rash of unconfirmed shark sightings, hoaxes and news stories about sharks, and made shark-hunting into a popular pursuit (a 1975 article describes an incident where a group of swimmers ‘mauled and stabbed’ a sick baby whale which they thought to be a shark; see Claire Molly’s book Popular Media and Animals on this and other instances of ‘shark mania’). But it also seems likely that our feelings about sharks are the result of more than just stereotypes. People appear to be ‘will[ing] to believe the fantastic worst about sharks’, as Crawford puts it, and appeals to our rational faculty have only a limited effect. We can say with a fair amount of confidence that our prejudice in this case also has a biological basis. We fear sharks more than we should because we have a strongly rooted fear of predation and because, it has been suggested, we have evolved to use immediately available information rather than to seek other more valid information elsewhere – for the simple reason that, when facing a predator, it is better to react according to a slightly crude rule that says ‘Predator: run/fight!’ than it is to run through all the relevant data and possible kinds of response (3).

It’s not easy, of course, to separate out the natural and the cultural causes of a strong fear. But we should at least be aware that certain factors affect the way we view sharks, and consider this when thinking about their moral status and deciding whether it is permissible for people (or for governments to permit people) to kill them or to cause them suffering.


1. See the Global Shark Attack File, at

2. Simone de Beauvoir runs through some examples from history in her book The Second Sex (new edition, translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, London: Vintage, 1997), including writings by Saint Francis of Assisi and Aeschylus (p. 168).

3. See Isaac M. Marks and Randolph M. Nesse, ‘Fear and Fitness: An Evolutionary Analysis of Anxiety Disorders’, Ethology and Sociobiology, 15 (1994), 256–257:

Works referenced

Crawford, Dean, Shark (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).

Molloy, Claire, Popular Media and Animals (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).