Thinking about it films about animals generally fall into just few categories:
A major genre of Horror, monster films typecast animals or animal-like creatures as the ultimate evil in need of being defeated. Three of arguably the most famous examples are in the picture above – Jaws, King Kong and Jurassic Park (which also just happens to be one of my favourite books). All three have led to sequels and/or reboots spanning the decades. In fact, Jaws is the 2nd highest grossing horror film ever. Monster films also don’t just fall under the jurisdiction of Hollywood; German cinema presented The Golem (1915) while Japanese cinema gave us one of the most famous monsters of all time, Godzilla, for the first time in 1954.
Of course the popularity of these monster films have had some not-so great real world consequences. I-for-one know that I am not the only one who is completely freaked out by sharks because of films like Jaws, Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3 (1983), Jaws 4 (1987), Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Shark Night (2011). Ok, so I know I seem like a gluten for punishment but I really enjoy the horror genre generally and I would never hurt an animal but let’s just say boats and open water freak me out. But I digress, Jaws forever changed the way we view sharks and especially the Great White and gave the idea that these dinosaur aged creatures were capable of acts of revenge.
Some of my other favourite monster flicks include: the Alien franchise (1979-2017), Lake Placid (1999) and when I’m hungover Sharknado (2013) does the trick.
Films for the young and young at heart
Pretty obviously, many, many “kids” films heavily feature animal characters. One of the most prolific providers is of course the Walt Disney Studios (including Pixar). I mean, the entire Walt Disney family is represented around the world by an anthropomorphic mouse. Some of their latest offerings include Zootopia (2016) and Pete’s Dragon (2016). One of the things that Disney does best with their films is create characters and stories that both adults and children enjoy watching. In our house, some of the best animal characterisation are in supporting and often non-speaking roles: Mushu from Mulan (1998), Maximus in Tangled (2010) and Dug in Up (2009). Of course we also must not forget that Walt Disney Studios has been contributing nature films (including several Oscar winners) since 1948.
Moving on, we must also pay homage to some of the awesome live-action animal kids films. Now the use of live animals in films is somewhat of a controversial topic and there have been reports of abuse and animal deaths on sets (The Hobbit – 2011 – I’m looking at you!) throughout cinematic history. These stories range from animals causing mayhem for their humans – Beethoven (1992), Babe (1995), Paws (1997) – to animals doing incredible things – Homeward Bound (1993) and Lassie (1943-1994) – to humans saving animals – Free Willy (1993-1997), Born Free (1966), Gorillas in the Mist (1988).
What would a homage to animal movie magic be without looking at some of the brilliant nature films and documentaries out there. As mentioned above, the Walt Disney Company pioneered the industry for theatrical nature documentaries starting with their True-Life Adventure series (1948-1960) and kept that tradition up with more recent releases such as Wings of Life (2011) and Chimpanzee (2012)
More recently, animal documentaries have moved away from stories about the “wonders” of nature into highly (and I mean highly) critical and often graphic documentaries of the treatment of animals at the hands of people. Some of more well known examples include The Cove (2009), Blackfish (2013), Food, Inc (2008) and Cowspiracy (2014). Be prepared for feelings of guilt, anger and possibly tears when you view these films.
Tear-Jerkers and Life Lessons
Ok, so totally not an official film category but I genuinely have some films which feature animals that I will either never watch again because they made me cry so much or are actually really interesting/beautiful examinations of the human-animal relationships. So under tear-jerkers I file films like Marley and Me (2008), I Am Legend (2007), The Fox and the Hound (1981). So if you want to brace yourself for an animal tragedy check out the Dog Dies website and type in the film – it will let you know if a film is safe to watch or if you need the tissues ready.
As for life lessons look no further than Planet of the Apes (1968 – or any of the 00’s reboots) for an interesting take on the human-animal relationship. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011) can go in either category to be honest but it is a beautiful portrayal of not just the human-animal bond but also just how much we owe to our animal soldiers. A final interesting film you can put under this category is Avatar (2009) which is not only one of the highest grossing films of all time, a technological masterpiece but it is also seen as a commentary on ecology, colonialism and exploitation of the natural world.
These categories are by no means exhaustive and there are some absolute classics such as Charlotte’s Web (1973) and Watership Down (1978) which haven’t been mentioned. But just take a think, next time you sit down to a film heavily featuring non-humans, about what the makers are trying to tell you (if anything) about them.
So what are your best and worst animal films?