We love them. We fear them. We cuddle them. We feed them. We eat them.
Animals. Our strange, lovable and sometimes unknowable fellow inhabitants on this planet, and the subject of oh so many movies, including quite a few this summer. Already "The Lion King," "Lassie" and "Black Beauty" have opened; soon, something called "Andre" arrives, with a new critter to adore: a seal. Arf, arf.
And this boomlet merely follows on the heels of last summer, when "Free Willy" (good animal) and "Jurassic Park" (bad animal) were all the rage. The films are typically straightforward, sentimentalized examples of anthropomorphism -- in which a human personality is projected upon a creature, human motivations ascribed to its behavior, and its emotions seen as expressions of human emotions. The implication is straight PETA: A rat is a cat is a dog is a boy. Animals are but extensions of the human psyche, little, furry, four-legged human beings.
This has not always been the case. Our feelings about animals have undergone considerable revision in the past several decades. Indeed, one of the vanished genres of American movie-making is the hunting movie, in which heroic Westerners or big-game hunters saw themselves as predators who tested their manhood by going with their big-bore rifles after animals. But nobody has done an authentic hunting movie in at least three decades, as attitudes about this form of recreation have changed utterly and a sense of the limits of the game population has entered the general consciousness.
The last of the hunting movies arrived in the '50s, in the days when Winchester regularly took out ads in Time magazine touting its Model 70 game-getter. ("You can tell the man who owns a Winchester," the ad copy ran.) There was "Track of the Cat" (1954), in which a mountain lion picked off members of a farm family one by one, like a sniper, until Robert Mitchum picked him off. In 1956, there was a Victor Mature adventure flick called "Safari," in which the heroic Westerners were not only beset by lions and tigers and giraffes but also by Mau Mau. Then, of course, there were the two descended from the canon of classic Hemingway, "The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber" (renamed "The MacComber Affair," which arrived early, in 1946) and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), both starring Gregory Peck and both set against the backdrop of refined, expensive, aristocratic African-plains hunting as it was practiced until black nationalism and anti-colonialism changed all that, permanently.
In such films, which were casually racist as well as uncritical endorsements of the hunting ethic, the hero was inevitably the tough, experienced "white hunter" -- that is, the hardy soul who suavely guided the rich boy to the game and backed him up if he panicked -- and who usually treated memsahib to a toss in the hay as well. He was usually British, handsome and looked great in those Abercrombie & Fitch safari jackets with the cartridges that looked like small missiles in loops on his manly chest.
Though the movies defined heroism as staying cool in the face of charging game, a subtle contempt for the debauched, rich clients almost always ran through them: The men were always swine, the women decadent. But it ended quickly enough. By the time that Sydney Pollack made "Out of Africa" in 1983, set in the heart of hunting culture (Kenya in the '20s), among people who killed animals as routinely as they brushed their teeth and almost as frequently, the hunting and killing was completely circumspect. In fact, Robert Redford, as the professional hunter Denys Finch Hatton, only shoots one animal, and that's in "self-defense": A charging cheetah had to be put down, or Hollywood would lose its most bankable leading man.
Although the hunting movies were politically incorrect and perhaps monstrous in hindsight in their endorsement of recreational killing without ecological consequences, it's also true that with their demise went the last vestiges of honest portrayal of animal behavior. The cheetah charged Redford not because it was bad or good, but because it was a cheetah. That's how cheetahs hunt: the charge, the blast of acceleration, to bring down the prey. That was its nature. The poor cheetah just didn't notice the .416 Mauser in Bob's hands.
Now there's no check on anthropomorphism. Both "The Lion King" and "Lassie" are zealous in this faith, reiterating a line that runs back through the cinema of animals for decades, all the way to Rin Tin Tin, the original hero dog of the West. "The Lion King" goes so far as to imprint the most sophisticated of all human artifices -- Shakespeare's "Hamlet," no less -- on the behavior of a pride of lions in a curiously humanless Africa.
There's some justification for this. Lion culture resembles the European patriarchy of Denmark and England in that rulership is passed down through the male lineage. Not only for his appearance is the lion considered kingly; in his behavior, also, he adapts a regal posture, lying around and swatting flies while les gals do all the disagreeable work. After they have hunted, he'll mosey into the feeding pack, knock them aside and help himself; when he's done, he ambles away for his afternoon snooze. Great work if you can get it.
However, much lion behavior never makes it into "The Lion King." Newly anointed alpha males routinely massacre the male cubs of the pride when they take over, so they won't be challenged in years to come, an example of Realpolitik that a Joe Stalin might have admired. You won't see that in a Disney cartoon. In fact, the sentimental anthropomorphism is, as a rule, very squeamish on the central act of nature, which is killing. If it appears at all on the screen, it's either through natural catastrophe (the fire in "Bambi") or as a consequence of the fact that . . . "Man is in the forest." ("Bambi" again.)
"The Lion King" occasionally shows the young Simba chowing down on worms and grubs, but no actual flesh-ripping and devouring. There's not even any hunting depicted, though, curiously, scavenging hyenas are the villains. In "Lassie," Our Gal goes up against some kind of wild canine -- it looks like a wolf to me, but wolves are never mentioned, only coyotes -- and presumably kills him. But the fight takes place discreetly, in a deep cave, with Lassie emerging with a tasteful drop of blood on her fluffy collar. (As if a collie, with its narrow jaws and delicate paws, could kill a wild beast like a wolf or even a coyote!)
"Lassie" is typical of Hollywood's treatment of the animal: The creature has been sentimentalized beyond recognition, imbued with almost godlike qualities. It is the "other" as angel from above, uniquely able to penetrate mystery, solve problems and act decisively. The fantasy is potent in popular culture, possibly representing an inchoate human longing for a master -- the incipient root of fascism, among other things. But of course it's fundamentally duplicitous. A dog who is a god is clearly not a dog anymore. It teaches no lessons about responsibility or morality. You can't learn anything from Lassie, who, more than anything, recalls the sainted Negro of '50s liberal movies such as "The Defiant Ones," a being of such dignity and sagacity he had no connection with reality.
Indeed, in classics of anthropomorphism it's not merely the presentation of animals but also of nature as a whole that is overly benign. In "The Lion King," the animals get together for a kind of hootenanny, to pay tribute to the arrival of the new lion king. It's an amazing image, only possible in the medium of animation: The animals, arranged in strict hierarchy by Darwinian rules (they've studied evolution!), prostrate themselves to the new royalty while hymns rise in the background. It's like a 1934 American Communist Party diorama of the Glorious Future of the Working Classes After the Revolution: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
But there's another, darker meaning in anthropomorphism involving the opposite of the noble animal, the evil animal. Melville probably invented it, even as he was locating the folly in it. In fact, "Moby Dick," that mightiest of all American novels (and several times a movie), is fundamentally an assault on the vanity that attends to anthropomorphism. Ahab, obsessed with the white whale who took his leg and ship, believes the beast to be "evil" and that he has the moral responsibility to destroy it. Of course this is hogwash: Melville knew what Ahab and Disney did not, which is that animals are simply animals: They have no place on a moral spectrum save when we put them there to assuage our vanity or solve a plot point. They are dumb nature its own self.
Thus Ahab is destroyed for his pride and vanity -- not that the beast is seeking to destroy him, but because he is a beast and that's what he does when men stick harpoons in his hide: gets ticked off, big time.
None of the various "Moby Dicks" were distinguished movies, but John Huston's 1956 job with Gregory Peck (Peck doesn't have much luck with animals, does he?) was probably the best. If there's a masterpiece of nasty anthropomorphism, it's got to be Steven Spielberg's dynamic and still thunderous "Jaws," which basically reiterated themes from "Moby Dick" in a modern idiom, with Robert Shaw in the Ahab role. Shaw commits Ahab's vanity: He takes it all personally. Bad mistake: He pays, personally, getting chomped in two by the creature. Roy Scheider, a more disinterested player in the drama, is the Ishmael of the piece and is awarded the kill only because of that indifference. The shark means nothing to him: He doesn't think it's been sent by God, only that it's a garbage grinder with fins.
"Jaws," in fact, released a tide of other killer-animal films, among them the truly ludicrous "Orca" and the epochally absurd "White Buffalo," with Charles Bronson hunting a four-footed Moby Dick on the plains. That cycle seemed played out, at least until last summer, when it was briefly reinvigorated with "Jurassic Park."
All this explains why Caroline Thompson's "Black Beauty," by far the best of the animal pictures, feels so refreshing. In one sense it stands apart from other animal films by virtue of the genre it inhabits. It's part of the very private world to which few males are admitted, the dense and possibly Freudian love of girls for horses and horse lore and culture. Until now, the masterpiece of the genre was probably "National Velvet," with Elizabeth Taylor's lavender eyes filled to the brim with admiration for the glorious steed Velvet. (I speak with practical knowledge in this matter as the father of a daughter passionate about horses.) Yet unlike other animal films, the horse movies tend to be more practical; usually the person writing them has mucked out too many stables and been dumped in the dust of the ring too many times to have ethereally romantic illusions about horses. The miracle in it all is that they can shovel out the stalls and still see the horse in all its magnificence.
A horse is a horse, of course
But "Black Beauty" goes radically further: It's one of the few films that doesn't turn a horse into a saint or a sinner; it loves the horse for being a horse. Derived from the novel by Anna Sewell, the piece is told entirely from the horse's point of view, narrated in a rich, first-person narrative. It chronicles Beauty's travels through the levels of Victorian society and through a variety of masters, kind and cruel, rich and poor.
Directed (brilliantly) by Caroline Thompson, a former dressage rider, the movie boasts values that are entirely equine: Humans are seen only as they interact with the animals and are judged entirely as they help or hurt the animals. What's clear immediately is the dense and conflicting web of dependence and suffering and need that unites the two orders of being. Over and over, we feel Beauty's desperate need to communicate with humans, to tell them how much pain he is in or how happy he is; but again and again we feel the gulf, as the people insist on interpreting the data by their own lights.
In a sense, then, like "Moby Dick," "Black Beauty" is a critique of anthropomorphism. Addressed in its original form to a Victorian audience, it proclaimed: We are not equipment. We are creatures too. It respects the "otherness" of the animal, rather than seeing it purely as a vessel of human wish fulfillment or human notions of good and evil.