Thoughts on storytelling and the world of animation. Caution! SPOILERS!

Final Blog Specimen – Depicting Animals in Animation

For my final blog specimen, I am redoing Post #7 on anthropomorphism.  Posting this today because I keep playing with it rather than concentrating on studying for my science final exam.


We’re all familiar with stories where animals are the main characters.  We know most of them from our childhood, but animals stories have always been around.  Using animals to tell stories and present morals is a great form of expression, allowing people to determine what is ‘animal’ instinct and what humans should do.  Aesop’s fables, supposedly from the sixth century BC, feature all kinds of animals that are placed in situations from which a human can learn an important lesson.

Anthropomorphism found a new and comfortable home in the world of animation in the twentieth century, where the animals could truly come to life in a way that no book or story could properly demonstrate.  On the screen, an animal could truly be human.  The question is, how human should an animal be in order to tell the story?  There are a variety of ways in animation in which an animal exhibiting human characteristics tells a story.

The first example is one we might find most familiar and comfortable.  The animated animal  looks and acts very similar to how we see them behave in the real world, although some human expressions and behaviors may sneak in to help the viewer relate to the story. In this case the audience is now privy to the thought processes and conversations between other animals, similar to the way we project our own mental processes onto our pets.  (“Kitty says, get off the Internet and feed me already!”)  Examples of this type of animal personification can be found in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, and 101 Dalmations.  The story is about their problems and the ways they have to find solutions.  These problems and solutions may be different from how a human would solve the problem due to physical differences.  A closed door presents a far greater challenges to a dog than a person.  At times a story may apparently take place in the human world, but without human presence, like The Lion King.

Gadget uses human made objects to solve problems

The second type of animal anthropomorphism is a variation of the first.  These animals live on the outskirts of the human world, living in walls and alleyways, basically making their living off of human products.  However, they take on more characteristics, frequently wearing clothing and owning furniture.  They might have their own tiny house set up like a human house, complete with bedrooms and kitchens.  These characters have hands that can manipulate items like scissors or musical instruments, enabling them to solve problems in the same way a human would, though they might still have problems with full scale items.   They may or may not interact with humans in the story.  Examples of these types of films include Don Bluth’s An American Tail, and Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers.

The next example is a bit vaguer.  The animal steps away from the human world, and may be considered in

a world of his own.  He or she exhibits characteristics of both an animal and a human.  An example of this is Warner’s Bugs Bunny.  He hops around like a rabbit and has a fondness for carrots, but also has excellent piano playing skills.  Other characters acknowledge that he is a rabbit, but do not seem surprised by his ‘human’ traits.

Another example of this type of anthropomorphism is Pixar’s Cars.  The main characters are vehicles rather than animals, but they hold down jobs and live in houses very similar to those in the human world.   There are no humans to be seen in this movie, the world is designed around them, with any obstacles they might normally encounter in a human world (like stairs) removed.

Finally we have characters who, even though they have animal bodies, have no clue that they’re animals, nor exhibit any animal characteristics.  Examples are Disney’s Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and entire films like Disney’s Robin Hood, where every character is an animal, but acts like a human.   Donald, though a duck, does not realize he can fly, and perhaps he cannot, he merely looks like a duck.

Weirdly, even characters within the same film fall into different categories.  Pluto is totally a dog, to the extent that we don’t get to see or hear his thoughts or voice.  Goofy is also a dog, but he talks and wears clothes.  He doesn’t seem to be aware of his species.   I  have encountered many audience members who never realized Goofy was a dog.

Simba from The Lion King probably wouldn’t know what to make of King Richard from Disney’s Robin Hood. And vice versa

Films like these can get awkward when they combine anthropomorphic animals with non-anthropomorphic animals. Some stories provide an explanation, others assume you’ll soon figure it out or not notice.  In The Magician’s Nephew of the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, dual animal types are addressed by claiming the animals who could talk and live like humans had been breathed on by Aslan (basically a gift of God).  So it was OK to, say, have a mouse that could talk to humans, but not the horse that pulled the sleigh.  Mickey Mouse riding in a horse-drawn sleigh, in which he talked and acted human, but the horses acted like normal horses, is not actually jarring unless you start to think about it.  Audiences are actually quick to accept the behavior of a character on screen regardless of its body type once they see how it acts.  On the other hand, some animators use changing personas for humor.  A cow who has behaved like a cow throughout a story, then suddenly looks at the audience and makes a comment, is sure to get a good laugh due to the unexpected behavior.

Tex Avery’s Wolf, in Swing Shift Cinderella

Finally, the species of a character in animation may serve to convey a message, or be a quick hint at how the animal may act.   If you see a fox, a wolf, or a snake on screen that exhibits human tendencies, you can also know that it will likely exhibit the characteristics we traditionally assign to these animals.  A  fox is crafty, a snake is deceptive, a wolf is hungry for baser desires.  The shape the animal is in these cases assists in telling the story without going into too much detail.

Using animals as main characters is a common and well accepted form of storytelling.  Animals can be presented in a variety of ways, from realistic to stylized humanoids.  Being an animal rather than a human can present unique problems for them to solve and unusual perspectives on human activity.  The animal type can also quickly define personality without taking up precious animating time.   It also presents unique and interesting challenges to the animators to get an animal form to adequately portray human emotions and expressions.  From Aesop to Pixar, animals will always play an important role in storytelling.

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One thought on “Final Blog Specimen – Depicting Animals in Animation

  1. Pingback: Oliver and Company | Animusings

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