Why Can’t We Kill the Dog? Anthropomorphism in Classic Children’s Movies

Joe’s recent grumpy review about Frozen I & II got me thinking about the stories we tell our children. Those movies, and often their soundtracks, have been on a constant loop in my busy household for sometime. I even reviewed The Fifth Element, ahem, Frozen II, when it came out. I love that my wife’s musical theater background brings that kind of music so prominently into our home, but every story we serve our children over and over has a price.

One of the earliest memories of sound I have is the noise of a typewriter whirring away at the hands of a fast typist. My mother would sit me in front of the television while she worked at the kitchen table, the pecking of the keys a constant reminder that she wasn’t far. The movies I watched during these work sessions were just as memorable. Whinney the Pooh and Disney’s Robin Hood. I’ve re-watched both with my son, and found a sort of comfortable familiarity with them I’ve seldom experienced.

Whinney the Pooh is filled with characters that have incredible flaws. Whinney is a glutton, Rabbit has anxiety, Eeyore depression, and Tigger ADHD. Each character taps into an archetype that can be recycled again and again. In fact, I recently had my creative writing class watch a few chapters and take those same character traits and transfer them into their own fiction, to see if they could breathe life into something new, yet familiar, with surprisingly good results.  

To this day, I still believe that Disney’s animated retelling of Robin Hood is the finest version of the story available. No matter how many times Hollywood recreates the classic story, it always fails to capture the humanity the anthropomorphisation of foxes, bears, mice, snakes, lions, etc. manages. Humans are seemingly wired to tolerate injustice, and while that makes sense in the animal kingdom, where all species are bound to the food chain, that doesn’t have to be the case within a single species at the apex. There’s no reason for inequality besides greed. 

Robin Hood contains moments of truly heartbreaking pathos; when the Sheriff, an obese wolf, waltzes into a crippled blacksmith’s shop and nearly breaks the cast on his foot to find the coins hidden there, and later, the Sheriff walks into an empty church–the whole town has been thrown in debtors’ jail–and takes the final farthing from the poor box, which the organ player, a tiny mouse, had saved under their mattress and donated only moments earlier to cheer Friar Tuck. What follows, the outrage of a church at the greed of the rich, is the core of the Robin Hood story. Greed must be challenged. Those who steal legally by exploiting an unfair legal system must be stolen from. Collectively, those two scenes make the audience hate the Sheriff and Prince John in truly a visceral way. Yet the other productions of Robin Hood, which use real actors, have never quite achieved the same effect.

Why is it that we can separate children from their parents and kill scores of men and women on screen, but the audience simply will not have it when a dog is killed?

Is it because we assume that animals are inherently just, and unable to fight for themselves, while in every instance, humans have the ability to stand up for themselves and are thus responsible, in some way, for the misfortune that befalls them? How sad it is that those least among us can suffer what we would never allow some animals to endure.

Both of the movies from my childhood have strong messages; love your friends even despite their flaws, because when they are gone, you will miss them; stand up for those who cannot defend themselves, even when it puts yourself at risk. 

There’s no substitute for narrative. The stories we tell our children over and over are powerful magic.  

Categories: Movies

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