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)
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)
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)
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.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans)
A full-blooded French historical martial arts schlock extravaganza, Brotherhood of the Wolf is an illogically fun adventure romp that conceals an unusual animal relationship at the core of its mystery. If you’ve never seen the movie — which morbidly explores the tragic and partially true story of the Beast of Gévaudan, a large wolf that supposedly killed 113 people between 1764 and 1767 — please avoid the remainder of this paragraph until you’ve seen it. We learn that the Beast is not a wolf (here it comes…) but some kind of deformed lion, described as a strange creature from Africa fitted with spiked armor-plating and knife-blades for teeth — a monster created not by God, but by man. Its master, a crazed hunter with a taste for the exotic, trained the animal to kill on command, and adorned it with metal to render hunting it impossible. The creature’s owners are so power-hungry after the success of their murderous monstrosity that there’s even chilling discussion of “a Beast in every province” in the near future. Take pity on the poor animal locked inside that fearsome armor, killing with no comprehension of the horror left in its wake.
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
Even after viewing Werner Herzog‘s Grizzly Man several times, I still don’t know what to make of Timothy Treadwell. His fascinating, true-life story of years spent living side-by-side with hungry grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness would be a bit more inspiring if it had a different, less-downbeat ending. It’s well known that Treadwell was killed by the very species of animal he’d dedicated his life to protecting, also causing his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, to die in the process of attempting to save his life. When Treadwell looked into the eyes of a bear, he saw a friend, a helpless creature far too frequently slaughtered by sneering sport hunters looking for big game. Throughout, we see Treadwell filming himself over countless hours, chronicling his time with the bears. But this is a Herzog film, not a Treadwell film, and the director’s thoughts on the murderous indifference of nature are already famous. These opposing ideologies collide with unrelenting strength in Grizzly Man, confirming nature to be a truly unknowable force that should be feared as much as respected.
Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
By the third reel of Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws, we’ve met Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), a surly fisherman carrying an unfortunate history with sharks. Decades earlier, Quint survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a Navy vessel torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July of 1945. Nearly 1200 sailors were left floating to drown or be devoured by hungry sharks, a incident so scarring that Quint vowed to never again wear a life-jacket. Yet, in the passing years, Quint became a fisherman and eventually opened a shop of some kind on Amity Island, its windows adorned with the jaws of many dead sharks. He never got over it. And so Quint’s fate is sadly ironic: to be eaten by a massive great white shark after having spent the last half of his life seemingly dedicated to killing them. If Quint had only learned to befriend these fish instead of loathing them, perhaps his fate could have been different. After all, Amity, as you know, means friendship.
Kes (Ken Loach)
Billy Casper walks the playground of his school like an inmate stalking a prison yard. Living in the coal-mining town of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, Billy is a loner amongst his classmates and a pariah at home: beaten, bullied, and constantly reminded of his bleakly impending future in the unforgiving mines. His only source of solace from his torment lies in Kes, a small Kestrel bird that he brings home and trains with the aid of a book stolen from a local store. Director Ken Loach remarkably captures the universality of childhood through the portrayal of Billy’s painfully realistic and ever-shifting prism of sadness and joy. Its emotions are so evocative and impacting that we feel every punch and jab Billy takes, every insulting word and cruel deed. When compared to an overlong critical darling such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, it’s extraordinary what Kes accomplishes with a brisk, 112-minute running time. Perhaps that bird was a key to unlocking a better and brighter future for Billy. Sadly, its life may have merely been a grim harbinger of the solemn existence for which he’s inevitably destined.
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr)
In 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse in the streets of Turin, a sight which so appalled the philosopher that he threw his arms around the animal’s neck and wept. It’s unknown what became of this animal, but Béla Tarr‘s The Turin Horse offers a glimpse into the daily life of its owners, a father and his daughter living on an isolated farm. Over the course of six days, we get to know these people and their daily toils and routine. Sometimes the horse moves, dutifully pulling its cart, while other times refusing to budge, preventing the farmer from his work. Soon, the horse will no longer eat. The daughter boils potatoes, the only source of food, every day, which they unceremoniously devour without conversation. There’s nothing to say — until something goes awry. Tarr and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky‘s endlessly roving camera drifts into gorgeous compositions before gliding away to miraculously find another and another. Even the impatient skinning and consumption of a boiling hot potato, wincing and grunting as it’s eaten, takes on an air of mournful desperation. Can’t there be something more to life than mere survival? By the end, even the daughter refuses to eat.
Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
Nearly broke, retired pensioner Umberto Ferrari comes home with his dog, Flike, to find his snobby landlady threatening eviction. “I always pay my bills,” insists the embarrassed gentleman. With barely enough to feed himself, let alone a hungry dog, Umberto sets out to earn enough money to keep them afloat. Or perhaps that’s what would happen if this wasn’t an entry in the Italian neo-realist genre from director Vittorio De Sica, coming only four years after his classic Bicycle Thieves. Along with that masterwork, Umberto D. may be one of the two quintessential entries in a genre characterized for its unflinching examination of Italy’s working class. Later, poor Umberto sees a man loudly begging in the streets, a hat filled with money. Too proud to beg himself, Umberto employs the dog to beg in his place, cutely clutching the hat between his teeth. Umberto D. and Wendy and Lucy feel like flip sides of the same coin, one embracing sentimentality with hopeful anticipation while the other knows all too well the responsibilities and consequences of animal ownership. Swaying between optimism and pessimism, Umberto Ferrari fights to retain his pride in the face of exacerbating trouble, cleverly thinking his way out of the gutter again and again. There may be hope for Umberto and Flike yet.
White Dog (Samuel Fuller)
Julie (Kristy McNichol), an aspiring actress, accidentally hits a white dog with her car. With no way of knowing who the dog’s owners are, Julie takes the animal in, nursing it back to health while assuming it to be a stray. Soon, it becomes clear that this is not a normal animal. It’s a white dog: those trained to attack and kill African-Americans by deranged and psychotically racist owners. Aware of the dire consequences, Julie decides to have her dog retrained to cleanse its learned racism. Folk singer Burl Ives has a delightful cameo, which quickly turns dire and troublesome as he explains that dogs trained to attack can almost never unlearn their violent ways. Julie pleads with him: “If you don’t help, they’re gonna kill him.” To which the avuncular, Santa Claus-like Ives chillingly replies, “They should, Miss. They should.” Paul Winfield‘s commanding performance as the animal trainer finally tasked with the dog’s deprogramming takes first chair, almost willing the dog to attack or be cured. Director Samuel Fuller brings a savage intensity to each frame, strengthened by a characteristically heart-wrenching score by Ennio Morricone. Powerfully arresting in its simplicity, White Dog is a searing work from a master filmmaker, only slightly hampered by some occasionally baffling dialogue from Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
When we meet Wendy (Michelle Williams), the center of Kelly Reichardt’s film, she’s already on the edge of homelessness. Living out of her car, which rests in the parking lot of a supermarket, Wendy has only her dog, Lucy, to keep her company. Drifting through the Pacific Northwest, she’s been looking for work. Maybe in canning, she says. Apparently on her way to Alaska, Wendy moves with the solitary sadness of a person who is afraid to stop, lest she collapse where she stands. It isn’t long before Wendy’s rousted from her parking lot and learns that her car’s engine has died. She cuts a deal with a mechanic using nearly all of her money, but while the vehicle is in the shop, Wendy and Lucy have no place to sleep. Some people are nice to her, such as the security guard who takes no pleasure in asking her to move her car. He knows the trouble she’s seen, and offers to help out whenever he can. Others are not so friendly, such as the scowling grocery clerk who heartlessly snarls, “If you can’t afford dog food, you shouldn’t have a dog.” But in Wendy’s eyes, that dog is the only thing she has left.
Wiener-Dog opens on Friday, June 24.