Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Talking Animals in Film

I recently watched the Zach Snyder film Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga'Hoole and found myself fascinated not by the movie so much as by audience's ability to make non-human characters so human...so lifelike, in an odd turn of phrase. It's an animated family film in all sense of the phrase, and I wasn't expecting much from it. The main reason I was watching it at all was because I'm a Snyder fan and felt the need to see even his strange picks of direction. As can probably be expected since I'm writing this post, it was a surprisingly good movie. There wasn't anything groundbreaking in it, from the typical three-act narrative and redemption plot of the young owl Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess of 21 and Across the Universe) as he seeks to find the ancient Guardians and save the land. Everything is quite predictable, but that didn't stop me from being entertained.

The movie itself has a great mix of drama, action and adventure, and comedy, the middle of which, as expected from Snyder, has plenty of slow motion owls beak'ing on each other. There are areas where the story could have been expanded on another ten minutes, but in the end the animation is absolutely fantastic and all of the characters are well voiced and lovable (those meant to be loved, at least). I started thinking while watching it, though, about a practice seen in hundreds of movies over the past few deca des: the personification of animals (don't nitpick about humans also being "animals). It goes back to just having non-human costumes that spoke or expressed emotion, like Chewbacca from Star Wars or even Kong from the 30s silent King Kong. It's amazing how attached people can get to the ape, especially without any sound. Fast forward to a system of movies built around computer-generated images and you get Beethoven the dog, talking toys, Finding Nemo, and so many more lower-level-order-of-thinking species (or toys) starring in movies.
It made me think, though, whether while watching the owls converse I was seeing owls talk or more human creatures simply modeled after owls. There's only so far you can go in making an animal humanistic. Where it concerns owls, there's no way their beaks would allow for the steady stream of sentences flowing from them. Star Wars gives us species that look nothing like humans yet still speak and act like us, and Toy Story gives us pieces of plastic doing the same. Why and how is it that we are so accepting of something so implausible? It's hard enough in film to make the audience feel sympathetic towards human characters in a scripted fictional story, yet Toy Story leaves both kids and adults tearing up as molds of plastic are thrown into a box for its new owner.
Perhaps it is the non-human nature of these characters that allow them to become so human. When we are presented with a human character in a movie that character comes to us not only with a backstory not seen on screen but also a range of emotions and subplots of romance or personal struggle - all of the things that make a human being "human." We as viewers assume the character already has its own subconscious and personality because he or she is like us, so we think they are completely like us. Enter from stage left the Woody doll or a talking dog and none of these things are there - these characters are, for all intensive purposes, blank slates. While they still have backstory and personality and personal struggles, these aspects of their characterization are not-human. Instead of seeing them as human beings with their own luggage we see them as a box in which to project our luggage.
Hence, it is actually easier for us as viewers to connect with and feel for a non-human character because we make these characters into what we want them to be. When we look at James Bond we see a very flat character with little room for us, but Woody is not just a toy - he is everything that is our childhood, no matter your generation. We accept talking owls because we see them not as owls but as feathered versions of ourselves with whatever struggles and personalities we project onto them. Add to this the vocalizations and dialects and mannerisms that makes these characters recognizable and they end up being more human than owls, toys, dogs, or fish.
It says a lot about how truly awesome the film form is that it's able to achieve an effect like this. I'm nowhere near knowledgeable enough to make a claim here, but I'd be very curious about whether we were as likely to look outside our window, see a dog, and imagine it talking before versus after the introduction of mainstream film and media. I think that for me I am able to humanize inanimate objects or other species so easily because my imagination and ability to suspend disbelief has been so widened by films, and I think that this effect is not only a positive one but a cool one. If anything, it's a good reason to keep having fun when watching animated family films. Here we come Rio!

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