10 Reasons to Write About Talking Animals (Backed by Serious Film History)

"What if man were required to educate his children without the help of talking animals?" - Robert Brault

As an author who once tried to turn her piratey, talking animal bonanza into something more human-shaped, I can almost answer that question. 

In my case, the attempt to turn Marshall and McKinley into proper people was spawned by an industry that cautioned "No Talking Animals!" on nearly every submission avenue for children's publishing. The early draft of the story was already written, in all its anthropomorphic glory, and it would be more than fair to say my heart wasn't wholly in the work of altering my first novel into something so far from its original aim. 

I don't think anyone would have argued that the result was anything but disastrous. I couldn't connect with the characters as humans, let alone translate their plight into one worthy of a human teenager's interest. I've since written works of that very sort, but still find myself unable to cram this particular story into that particular box. 

It could be that most of us write from a place of absorbed culture. My childhood (and admittedly, thanks to a death grasp on the epicness of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my teenagerhood) was a sea of anthropomorphic faces. With Paddingtons and Poohs in my literature; Glow Worms, Care Bears, and Popples in the toy box; and Duck Tales, Donald, and Darkwing on the television... it's really a wonder I can have a human conversation without dumping a critter-like affectation into my voice. 

Lately, I've found a spot of mindfulness in idle sketching and often discover one or more of these influential characters at the end of my pencil. Or... you know... crayon. Whatever. I don't need to be proud. 

I do, however, want to make more of an attempt in 2016 to peek my head from behind the door. Today, I'm doing that with doodles, because I'm almost certain that thing about eyes being the window to the soul was originally regarding sketch pads.

10. The Pirate Cat (The Last Unicorn, 1982)

I admit. I feel obligated to begin the list with a character from The Last Unicorn. You know the movie you watched and re-watched and watched again until your parents begged you to find an interest in just about anything else? But you still watched it anyway, because it never failed to wrap you up in whatever emotion or transported world you needed, whenever you needed it? This was my Toy Story. It was my Frozen. It's still the thing I queue up on Netflix when it's three in the morning and I can't sleep. It's the perfect mix of magic and consequence. At no point does the script talk down to you, skewing a little darker in plot setting and in artistic style than most children's films, which made it the perfect vehicle for lessons of a deeper variety. It's very: Unicorn against Society; Unicorn against Nature; Unicorn against Self. With a healthy side of: Unicorn against Horrifying Red Bull.

The pirate cat has a very short stint on screen, but it's full of sound advice and the woeful gravitas of a weathered sailor. He even gives us a line that would almost certainly be true of every cat who ever lived, should they be granted the ability to talk:

"No cat out of its first fur ever gave anyone a straight answer."

I feel like.. if Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson
had a baby that was a cat, it would be THIS cat.
I don't know why that is.
Also, you know Jim Butcher was all up in this
character's head for Aeronaut's Windlass.

9. Dodger (Oliver & Company, 1988)

"Why should I worry? Why should I CA-A-A-ARE?" 

If you can walk past any reminder of this film without singing that line in your head, I'm not sure you and I can be friends. Billy Joel is to the street-savvy cool of 80s culture as short-legged mixed breeds are to a joyful world -- and this movie poured both of those things into a single character.

That move alone was boss enough for a mic drop, but Disney then went above and beyond by hiring Bette Middler to voice a poodle. 

Right?

Just go watch it again. You deserve to spend the rest of the afternoon singing, and this is the perfect excuse.

You would so adopt this dog.

8. Unico (Unico, 1981)

Proof that not all influences are happy and that some lessons are downright miserable, Unico aimed for the same fantastical blend of darkness and magic that turned The Last Unicorn into an instant fairy tale classic.

For any kid (or general human, for that matter) who might be disturbed by minor issues like abandonment and watching those you love devolve into lifeless gingerbread furniture for a homicidal psychopath... it kinda missed the "magic" mark and landed somewhere in evil acid land next to a cadre of kittens acting out the Manson killings. 

If you haven't had the pleasure of viewing it for yourself, you might think that dramatic. But give a read to what Gizmodo said about the glorious care given to Unico by beneficent-looking caretaker/assassin West Wind, who repeatedly "saves" Unico from execution by abandoning her in horrifying places the way a drunk parent "saves" a preschooler from germs by locking them in the cellar with the bubonic rats:

"The Wind disappears... and Unico just starts screaming. Understandable. This is five minutes into the movie. But don't worry, soon enough, Unico meets Melvin the Magnificat, who immediately starts punching the unicorn in the face."

The fun goes on from there. 

So why is this on the list? Suffice it to say, the film made such a mark that I spent the rest of my childhood blocking it out and much of early adulthood believing it was actually just a nightmare I once had BECAUSE NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND PUTS THIS SHIT IN CARTOON FORM. That alone makes it notable enough to merit a mention.

Besides, that is still one ridiculously adorable Kitten... Unicorn... Goat thing.

The cuteness is a lie.
Like the cake in Portal,
or a human kidney in Christmas wrapping.

7. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, 1975)

The not-so-humble humble champion of Kipling's short story, Rikki-Tikki was the most engaging version of David versus Goliath and the definite precursor for Redwall's celebration of honorable home defense. Black and white, hero against villain, we unambiguously supported that mongoose through snake infanticide and beyond because the violence seemed somehow practical, if not downright virtuous. As a parent, I look back on this product of older times with harsher realities and I can't help but find the idea of a pocket-sized protector with Rikki's tenacity rather comforting. 

What that says about me, I'm not entirely sure.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
Turning children into bite-riddled squirrel tamers since 1975.

6. Basil of Baker Street (The Great Mouse Detective, 1986)

Basil had kids hooked on Sherlock long before Benedict Cumberbatch ever had a chance at setting the standard for the role. With an exuberance for puzzle solving that wouldn't be rivaled until Bill Nye the Science Guy appeared on screen many years later, The Great Mouse Detective translated the superhuman, deductive genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original character into something zany enough to cross the literary divide. Basil had an obsessive dedication to the mystery that made miniature gumshoes of us all. 

The mouse you'd definitely want on your side,
if you were also a mouse.

5. Peg (Lady and the Tramp, 1955)

No disrespect to Lady OR Tramp. But, for me, this film was less about nosing meatballs* and more about the stray queen and cell block lounge singer, Peg (as voiced by timeless treasure, Peggy Lee), crooning the theme song from behind Pound Puppy bars. Like Dodger, she embodied the carefree coolness of someone cast aside by society who has chosen to defiantly revel in it by way of song. 

Singing about serial hookups has never been cooler.

4. Bagheera (The Jungle Book, 1967)

Don't give me that look. You loved Baggy's tough love and helicopter parenting as much as I did. In the whole of the story, he's the only one who consistently had Mowgli's best interests at heart. Even better, in the book, he's basically the Indian Mufasa:

"Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as [the trickster jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree..."

While Baloo acted as a safety blanket, Bagheera was the bona fide safety net who kept their shenanigans from killing them. Not to mention that he put himself on the line as sole protector in guiding Mowgli to a world more suited to his needs. This while an entire pack of wolves said, "Nah, man. Shere Khan's after him. We're not down for anything with the potential of random tiger." 

He was the nanny we all wanted, even if we couldn't reasonably be disappointed when the babysitter invariably showed up without a tail.

Baggy's so stunned by the comparison to Mufasa
that he lost his whiskers, poor guy.

3. The Unicorn / Amalthea (The Last Unicorn, 1982)

Yes, The Last Unicorn deserves two spots on this list. Yes, I My-Little-Ponified the proportions on this sketch after hitting the bottom of the page.

Even so. 

Peter S. Beagle groupie for life, ya'll.

The Last Unicorn: Home of America's best music.
Ba-dum-tiss.

2. Robin Hood (Disney's Robin Hood, 1973)

Robin Hood probably had more influence over the Secoran world state than any film on this list. The wit. The weaponry. The weird regard for clothing... but also, not. Roger Miller as a chicken. 

The Sons of Masguard may be a bit lacking in that last one, but it shares a landscape devoid of human culture, where scale is altered, and all of sentient history belongs to animals designed to eat each other who, for whatever reason, have decided not to eat each other. 

It's jolly good irreverence with super catchy music. Find me a kid who doesn't love Robin Hood and I'll show you a parent who believes in the power of the funectomy. 

The only woodland creature who looks better on a
Wanted poster than McKinley ever could.

1. Mrs. Brisby (The Secret of NIMH, 1982)

Say what you want, but the timid gal had timid grit. 

She was a mom, remember. And a tiny little field mouse mom, at that. But time and again in this film you watch her tackle every obstacle head-on -- often with eyes wide and every limb trembling as though it might fall off. Mrs. Brisby was a champion, not so much for the cause of overcoming fear as that of experiencing fear in its fullest and choosing to take heroic action anyway. 

As far as I'm concerned, she's the bravest of the lot, and earned her position at the top of today's humble list.

Who says you can't cry AND kick ass?

Regarding the Sons of Masguard as it stands today, when the question is asked -- Why did you decide to write them as animals? -- I usually bypass the long form, cultural immersion essay and respond with the more abbreviated story of the absent illustration that started it all; a colored pencil doodle drawn for its own sake, not unlike those pictured above. But the grander truth of why I enjoy writing about talking animals and why talking animals will probably always be a thing, is that they give us a safe way to create a nobler world without having to justify its superhuman decency. Love it or hate it, anthropomorphism is a brilliant medium for eliminating gender biases and cultural walls. Attempt the same with human characters and you may find yourself fielding complaints of activism when all you really want is to show a group of kids a world where superfluous differences are truly superfluous. Where heroic capability isn't determined by socioeconomic status, or even by species. Where the humblest creatures can solve the biggest mysteries and Billy Joel can coax all the dogs in New York into the most objectively awesome flash mob in entertainment history. 

I'm not saying you CAN'T do that with humans. I'm saying a pack of people crawling through the streets on all fours isn't such a welcome visual. 

What do you think? Do you share a particular affection for any of the characters listed here? If not, which talking animals tickle your nostalgia?




*Which sounds impressively dirty, in retrospect.





4 comments:

  1. McKinley.... as a human.
    No. No. No. Or Ryder, or Faiz. Maybe Marshall. But Never the others. Jumping off the top of the mast just doesn't work when you're a human.

    As for the rest of the post.... Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was my favorite out of Whatsisname's Just-so-stories. And I loved how Bageera was constantly looking out for Mogli. Its interesting how the panther is the complete opposite of the boy. He escaped from the humans to return to his own kind and knows that the human boy must leave the jungle and do the same.
    Ahh... Robin Hood. I loved that show since I was... well a lot younger I guess. Its awesome. As a consequence I have a character who is a fox and an archer.
    The secret of NIMH- Basically restored my faith in rats after redwall. Justin... or the captain of the guard. I loved his character. Willing to help and smile while he was at it.
    The Last Unicorn- don't have much to say, just watched it last year.

    But I have got to mention one particular book series that started my own obsession with animal characters.
    "The Mice of the Herring Bone" by Tim Davis
    A little kids book that I read as (surprise!) a little kid. And yeah. Animals ever since.
    And of course Redwall. I loved it. Most of it. My favorite was the first one with Matthias. I am that is.
    What I did not love was the stereotyping. Foxes, rats, weasel, stoats, cats, ect where bad. Mice Otters, Moles, and squirrels where good.
    Boring.
    Anyway. I found this post awesome. I struggle with writing people and its nice to know that other people like to write animal characters and umm... how do I put it? Oh yeah. They excel at it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Jumping off the top of the mast just doesn't work when you're a human."

      RIGHT? Really cuts down on the cool shenanigans option, I think.

      Thank you for the book suggestion. I don't remember having heard of "The Mice of the Herring Bone" before now - can't wait to give it a read!

      Much love,
      Vivienne

      P.S. Justin was AWESOME.

      Delete
  2. It is for very little kids, so I doubt you'd find much interest in it. Just felt like I should mention it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. OOhh new chapters on wattpad! YEAYYY!!!!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete

Leave ye scrawlins 'ere, but mind that ye treat one another wi' decency, yeah?