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The Greatest Human-Animal Relationships in Cinema

Written by on June 23, 2016 

Weiner Dog 2

Writer and academic W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” In truth, an animal understands nothing of its place in the world, their mind focused merely on food and the prospect of comfort, if available. In cinema, there is an old actor’s adage that states: “Never work with children or animals. They will always upstage you.” When an animal performs successfully in a film, it’s undeniably captivating because we know that animal is unaware of its role in the overall story. The camera has recorded some beautiful cosmic miracle, appearing from the outside to somehow defy Sebald’s words.

Whether fictional friend or foe, the relationship between humans and animals in cinema has always captured our imaginations. These sometimes expand beyond the borders of the normal, and, beyond the Bourgeoisie pooper-scoopers and barked-out cry conveying that some hapless child has fallen down a well, these relationships can become a little unusual.

Wiener-Dog, the brilliant and darkly funny new film from writer-director Todd Solondz opens in limited release this week. The film follows the storied life of the titular wiener-dog as she moves from owner to owner, including some time with Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig in the role first played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz’s teen-squirm classic, Welcome to the Dollhouse). This is easily one of Solondz’s funniest and most emotional films, though Wiener-Dog indeed contains the potential to burn unwitting mainstream audiences, lured by the cute puppy on the poster, to the ground. Our review, which includes a quote from Solondz hilariously describing the film as “Au Hasard Balthazar meets Benji,” attests that the film is a rousing creative success.

To celebrate Wiener-Dog‘s release, we decided to give our salute to the big-screen creatures, great and small, who’ve made us laugh and made us cry. From man-eating sharks and mysterious beasts to gallant pigs and subtitled terriers, we assembled 13 of the greatest examples of unusual animal relationships in cinema. A nod of honorable mention goes to Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sleeping Dogs, if only for its unapologetic comedic intent.

Please enjoy the list, and suggest your own favorites in the comments below.

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)

Au Hasard Balthazar

Sparse, bleak, and powerfully moving, Au Hasard Balthazar follows the life of a noble donkey from birth to demise. The animal is no different from any other donkey, its nobility only evident as we witness his prolonged suffering over the course of many years. Balthazar’s life begins on a small farm, playfully rolling around in the hay. Marie, the daughter of the farmer who owns the animal, baptizes him, gently pouring water over his head. Later, the donkey is described as “a saint.” But even the life of a holy donkey is toilsome and hard, laboring under the crack of a whip to carry a burden it cannot understand. Robert Bresson‘s gaze shows sympathy for the animal’s plight, and never an ounce of sentimentality. However, in a telling detail, when a young man tells Marie how lovely she is, gushingly complimenting her beauty, the camera holds not on Marie, but Balthazar. Despite the sweetness shown to the animal by many, he is often mistreated and left unprotected by those who love him, deep flaws existing in even the kindest people. While even the most compassionate of souls carry with them tragically wounding flaws, Au Hasard Balthazar holds one perfectly divine character.

Babe (Chris Noonan)


As heartwarming as E.T. and twice as weird, Babe, the story of the titular pig with a knack for sheep-herding is a lovely throwback to a time when children’s movies could be a little darker. It’s easy to forget, among the talking animals and idyllic setting, that the narrative exists on a working farm, where animals are routinely killed for food. Even weather proves to terrorize these poor creatures, as a heroic sheepdog is forced to watch helplessly as a flock of stray sheep drown in a flood. That’s dark, no? Director Chris Noonan (co-written and produced by George Miller from Dick King-Smith‘s book) allows the narrative to remain emotionally grounded despite its surreal flourishes, all the while the stoic Farmer (James Cromwell) and the polite pig grow fonder, and the Farmer’s wife readies for a pork chop dinner. Seven years in the making, Babe is a powerfully enduring classic, though it seems rather quaint in comparison with its wonderfully crazed sequel.

Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller)

Babe Pig in the City

After everyone’s favorite well-intentioned pig lands Mr. Hoggett in a hospital bed, it’s up to Babe and Mrs. Hoggett to head off to the big city to save the farm. Staying at the city’s only hotel that allows animals, Babe encounters a whole world of creatures that he never knew existed. Compared to the original, this surreal follow-up is much darker and wilder, its structure closer to something from the Mad Max series — no surprise from director George Miller, who takes the reigns for this uproariously bonkers sequel. By the end, Babe has jumped from gallant pig to action hero, even clad in a spiked-leather dog collar, a detail that was never intended to evoke Max Rockatansky the way it does in retrospect. As with the original, its use of CGI and animatronics blend seamlessly with real animal performers, cementing a boundless and absurd world that manages to smartly avoid devolving into cartoonish meandering. As boisterous as it is creatively unrestrained, Babe: Pig in the City is a joyfully dizzying ride overflowing with warmth and intelligence.

Beginners (Mike Mills)


Shortly after the death of his wife, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), revealing his wishes to begin living as a gay man. Five years later, Hal dies and Oliver is left to sort through his memories of his father. But he’s not alone. In Hal’s passing, Oliver inherited Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier who communicates with his new owner via subtitles. Or does he? (“While I understand up to 150 words, I do not talk.”) Refusing to allow Oliver to leave him at home, Arthur becomes an ever-present companion for the mourning son. Oliver is never permitted to take his mind off of Hal’s passing as this dog, his last connection to his father, won’t leave him alone. In the same manner that we project human emotions onto animals, Oliver projects his relationship with Hal onto the expressive face of this lonely canine. Inspired by the true story of writer-director Mike Mills‘ father, who indeed came out at age 75, Beginners tracks a heartwarming path to happiness through the deepest points of pain and loss.

The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard)

The Black Stallion

As a ship sinks in the South Atlantic, a boy frees a frightened Arabian Stallion from its restraints and watches as the animal leaps overboard. It isn’t long before the boy himself falls into the ocean and almost drowns as the ship sinks, only to be rescued by the Stallion as it struggles toward a rock on the horizon. Thus begins an epic journey from a beatific deserted island to the ruthless backstage world of horse-racing, where this wild animal and lost boy have a chance of finding their glory. Carroll Ballard‘s touching poem of a film, The Black Stallion (not to be confused with Black Beauty), contains some of the most gorgeous and lushly captured cinematography this side of a Terrence Malick film, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. While a vast majority of the third act fails to surpass the breathtaking emotional weight of the desert island sequences, its uplifting finale delivers a warmly satisfying conclusion to this uniquely quiet children’s gem.

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