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Animal Characters

On this Memorial Day, I'd like to ask the nation to join me in thinking on an important issue.  When is it appropriate to have animal characters in your story?

I'm not referring to anthropomorphic creatures like Mickey Mouse that walk and talk like humans.  I'm referring specifically to animals that are characters.  Like the horse in Frozen, or the horse in Road to El Dorado, or the dog in pretty much any romantic comedy ever.  Animals that behave like animals and yet are treated as characters in the story, either by their critical function in a story arc or by their relationships to the human characters.

Some stories are specifically about animals, so they're kind of exempt from this discussion.  I can't imagine trying to tell the story of Air Bud without Air Bud.  That would be what, exactly?  The story of a lonely kid who's bad at everything and then joins the basketball team only to continue being bad at everything?

Actually, wait, that sounds way better.  But that's not my point.

The point is that there's a lot of movies that feature a hyper-intelligent creature that sits around and mugs at the camera whenever one of the leads says something to it.  First example that popped into my head: Lost & Found, that David Spade movie from fifteen years ago.  Sophie Marceau has a dog that features prominently in the plot, and then at the end the dog growls when her villainous ex-boyfriend is on the phone, but the dog is supper happy when Marceau is thinking about dating David Spade.  Because dogs are intelligent, you see, and they can make important decisions about romance for you.  This is why people own them.

The premise of an animal sidekick that is wiser than its human owner/compatriot is so commonplace that I think we've become desensitized to it whenever it comes up in a movie.  If somebody has a pet, then you better believe that pet is going to elucidate a Greater Truth by the end of the second act.  They're kind of like Magic Negroes, only more respectful to their species.

Despite my grumblings, I'm not one to eighty-six a concept as a whole.  Just because a talking turd is an awful idea in a movie like The Godfather does not mean that it wouldn't work in South Park.  And so even though animal characters are frequently annoying in romantic comedies and animated movies, I'm sure there must be a time and a place where they are actually brilliant.

The problem is that I can't think of when that might be.  And now I'm afraid that some day I might write a story and get stuck only to snap my fingers and say, "Yes!  The cat can be smarter than her owner!  It'll be hilarious!"

Now that I think about it, somebody should make a movie where the main character asks their dog for advice, and then the dog just acts like a normal dog, but the protagonist acts on that advice, anyway.  I guess what I'm saying is, I'd like to see more movies like The Jerk.