A common motif in children’s movies (and books, for that matter) is that of talking animals. But not all talking animals are created equal. There are two different kinds of talking animals in children’s stories: the ones that have their own civilizations, and live basically independently from humans, versus the ones that coexist with humans and can even talk to them.
Of course, thesee two different kinds of talking animal stories have subgroups. Take the stories where there are only talking animals – no humans. (I include here stories where humans exist, but don’t play a big role, and there are no human characters or there are only a few minor human characters and they can’t understand the animals’ speech.)
One of my favorite kid’s movies of all time, The Lion King, has only animals as characters, and so in it the characters, while animals, are essentially human. Their animal natures don’t really have much effect other than to give an instant characterization: lions are royal and brave (generally speaking), monkeys are clever, hyenas are deceptive and ruthless, etc. But the characters themselves are basically human. The plot would make just as much sense with human characters, though the movie would be worse.
On the other hand, the book Watership Down (also one of my favorites) actually uses the fact that these are animals, not humans; the rabbits are very, well, rabbity, not very intelligent, not making very big plans, etc. There are humans, and how they endanger the rabbits is important, but the gulf between rabbit and human is so great that humans are essentially gods – they don’t care about rabbit society, and aren’t expected to. The humans can kill the rabbits if they want to, but just as often don’t care at all about them. The rabbits are the main characters, they aren’t humans though they have some human-like characteristics, and the humans are basically gods.
Now take those stories where there are both humans and talking animals, and the humans are, generally speaking, the main characters. This poses an interesting problem as to how to portray the animals. A common error, I think, is to present the animals as basically human, and to imply (through having some animals able to talk) that all animals are equal with humans. This just causes moral confusion.
I recently saw the movie Up (the reason for my making this post in the first place); in it, there are dogs with collars that make them talk basically like humans, and the plot centers on the main character trying to protect a bird (not even a talking bird!) from being captured (not killed, captured!) by the villain. Why exactly would it have been wrong for the bird to be captured and brought to America? I really have no idea. It makes no philosophical sense, I’d say. But emotionally, I think it had something to do with how the dogs were able to talk. This is my problem with stories with humans and talking animals where the talking animals are essentially human.
For an alternate kind of story with talking animals and talking humans, I have to turn to fairy-tales – the story of Cinderella, as told in the original German (Aschenputtel, which I read in German class once upon a time). In it, there are birds that help Cinderella out by giving her clothes, and who protect her by revealing her sisters as frauds (the sisters cut off their toes and heel so they can fit into the tiny shoe, and the birds call out “Ruckedidu Ruckedidu, Blut ist im Schuhe!”). They can talk, yes – but they’re not people. They don’t have personalities, per se. They’re basically nature embodied. We would be somewhat disconcerted if these birds died, because they can talk – they give us this link to nature, to understand what nature “wants”. But they don’t make us think that animals are human, or that we should feel bad when we kill a bird and eat it.
Hm. Interesting Tolkien connection; he talks about talking animals in his “On Fairy-Stories”, saying that the presence of talking animals was a clear sign that something was a fairy tale. It is, I’m pretty sure, this last kind of talking-to-animals (and not the animals-are-human kind!) that he was talking about. Anyway, good essay. Worth reading.