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Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side (originally published 8/05)

The adage is as old as show business itself: never perform with children or animals. They’ll steal the show right out from under you without ever even knowing that they’re doing it. Unfortunately for thespian egos, movies featuring both types of scene stealers never seem to go out of style with audiences.

In the animal movie category, this year’s “March of the Penguins” has become a box office smash in a year not overburdened with such successes. For those who prefer their movie stars furry, feathered, or with fins, I thought I’d mention a few favorite animal movie titles. I am, however, ruling out dog movies and horse movies on the grounds that they constitute categories unto themselves, if only by reason of sheer numbers.

“The Yearling” (1946). Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was adapted for the screen by veteran director Clarence Brown. Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman play the parents in this sentimental tale of pioneer hardships. Their son is played by Claude Jarman Jr. The story is a familiar one. The son adopts a fawn as a pet, but finds that his family’s hardscrabble existence doesn’t allow for such luxuries. When the fawn becomes a threat to their survival, the boy must face the hardest and most heartbreaking decision of his young life. It is a deeply touching story, skillfully told.

“Bedtime For Bonzo” (1951). This harmless little movie became the butt of innumerable jokes during its star’s tenure as president of the United States. I had my share of fun with it too, but with the Reagan administration safely tucked away in the dustbin of history, it’s time to admit that this is really a pretty good movie. In addition to being amusing, it uses humor to address one of the great scientific debates of the century: nature versus nurture. Professor Peter Boyd (Ronald Reagan) is committed to demonstrating that it is environment, not heredity, that determines who we are. To prove the point, he takes a chimpanzee named Bonzo into his home to raise him just as he would a human child. So, you see, Ronnie was actually ahead of the curve in advocating family values. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“Born Free” (1966). Based on the nonfiction book by Joy Adamson, this film tells the story of an African game warden and his wife, and of their pet lioness named Elsa. Having raised the orphaned Elsa and her siblings from cubs, Joy finds that she is too attached to Elsa to part with her. Eventually, of course, she has to face the fact that lions were meant to be free. But by then Elsa is grown, so it is up to Joy to teach her how to survive in the wild.

“Doctor Dolittle” (1967). I realize I’m in the minority here, but I much prefer this earlier version of Hugh Lofting’s classic stories to the Eddie Murphy remake. Neither version measures up to Lofting’s imaginative originals, but this one at least attempts to stay closer to his storylines. It also has the advantage of Rex Harrison’s charming performance in the lead role. More importantly, it raises, in an entertaining way, some of the animal rights issues that are only now beginning to be taken seriously. Even so, it was a resounding flop at the box office, and is regularly cited on lists of the worst films ever made. Well, I don’t care. I still like it.

“Flipper” (1963). This was the film that led producer Ivan Tors, during the latter part of his career, to specialize in moves and TV shows featuring animals. The story of a boy who adopts a dolphin as a pet clearly echoes “The Yearling,” but without the emotional depth, and with a much happier ending. Even so, the leisurely, almost European pacing is beguiling, and Flipper was endearing enough to be cast in a successful TV series.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that “March of the Penguins” takes the animal movie to its logical conclusion by eliminating the onscreen human co-stars altogether. The lone homo sapien thespian, Morgan Freeman, is relegated to the role of narrator. From the producer’s point of view, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Animal actors rarely come with entourages, and almost never demand their own trailer or a percentage of the profits. Human actors might do well to watch their backs.

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