In spite of the pride we humans take in sitting at the pinnacle of the animal kingdom, I suspect that there are few of us who have not fantasized from time to time about taking on the attributes of our animal cousins. How handy it would be, now and then, to be able to call upon the speed of a gazelle, the strength of a dray horse, or the winged flight of a bird without having to resort to the machinery that normally fulfills these functions for us.
Filmmakers, of course, are well aware of the narrative power of stories that satisfy our fantasies. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the recently released comedy, "The Animal," is by no means the first to build a story around a human who, through science or magic, has become part animal. Last week we considered a few earlier films based on this premise. Here are some additional titles to look for on home video.
"The Wolf Man" (1941). Certainly werewolf movies fall into the broad category of movies about the blending of human and animal. There have been many excellent werewolf pictures through the years, but the most familiar of all is the progenitor of the Universal Pictures series about the hapless Larry Talbot. Played by Lon Chaney, Jr., Talbot is the victim of a werewolf attack who subsequently turns into a werewolf himself. In his wolf form he leaves a trail of corpses. Then, in his human form, he agonizes over the deeds of his other self. It is, in a sense, a variation on the Jeckyll and Hyde theme, portraying Talbot as both monster and victim.
"The Shaggy Dog" (1959). Walt Disney's first live action comedy featured reliable Tommy Kirk as a young man who falls victim to an ancient curse that transforms him into a sheepdog. The transformation isn't permanent, but it does recur unpredictably, causing him to change from boy to dog or from dog to boy at inconvenient and embarrassing moments. The film turned out to be one of Disney's biggest hits, giving rise to both sequels and remakes over the next thirty years.
"The Reptile" (1966). Just as Universal was the studio that dominated the horror film genre in the 1930s and 1940s, England's Hammer studio was world cinema's premier source of fright films in the 1960s. In this Hammer picture, a scientist has, like so many other movie scientists, poked his nose where it doesn't belong. It seems that he was researching a tribe of snake-people on a trip through Borneo, when they took exception to his snooping. By way of retribution, they captured his daughter and somehow transformed her into a hybrid creature, half woman and half cobra.
"Oh, Heavenly Dog!" (1980). Back in 1951, a comedy called "You Never Can Tell" featured Dick Powell as a murdered German shepherd who is reincarnated as a human detective so that he can bring his killer to justice. Sadly, this film is not available on video. "Oh, Heavenly Dog!," which is available on video, reworks the same premise by reversing it. In the latter film, the main character begins life as a human detective. Then, after he is killed, he comes back as a dog. Chevy Chase plays the protagonist in his human form, while Benji, the canine Olivier of the 1970s and 1980s, portrays his animal incarnation.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" (1994). Writer-director John Sayles has spent the last twenty years quietly turning out high quality drama and comedy pictures that entertain without insulting the intelligence. This delightful treatment of Irish folklore is a prime example. It tells the story of a young girl named Fiona who comes to live with her grandparents in a small Irish fishing village. She hears tall tales about an uncle who is said to have married a selkie, a creature who is part human and part seal. When Fiona becomes convinced that she has seen a younger brother whose cradle was swept out to sea when he was an infant, she must decide whether to believe the tale of the selkie.
There is, of course, one special case of the blending of human and animal for the screen that I haven't mentioned. The "Planet of the Apes" series continues to be popular with viewers; so much so in fact that a remake is in the works. But that's another column for another time.