Cinema’s Talking Animal Ids, Ranked


“There are elements of Goodbye to Language you might find in any Hollywood movie — people arguing, a shootout — and even a dog, the director’s own. (Roxy wanders the countryside [“conversing”] with the lake and the river that want to tell him what humans never hear.)” writes NPR of Jean-Luc Godard’s new film. The director’s “meditation on love and history, nature and meaning” will be playing at New York’s IFC Center until November 4.

“One of the reasons the dog Roxy is very prominent in the film … is that he’s trying to get people to look at the world in a kind of an unspoiled way,” critic David Bordwell stated of Godard’s animal companion. ”There are hints throughout the film that animal consciousness is kind of closer to the world than we are, that language sets up a barrier or filter or screen between us and what’s really there. And although the film is full of language, talk, printed text and so on, nevertheless I think there’s a sense he wants the viewer to scrape away a lot of the ordinary conceptions we have about how we communicate and look at the world afresh.”

Animal-centric films tend to fall into the absurd or terrible categories, especially those where the beasts talk or act as a foil for a human character’s inner world. But Godard’s latest demonstrates one way directors can make the concept of the animal id work. Here are eight others, ranked for your convenience.

8. Invitation to the Dance

A fantastical all-dance anthology from Gene Kelly that features the star with Tom & Jerry (Kelly’s inner innocent enthusiast) in a surreal segment set in the Far East, brought to life in eye-popping Technicolor. Unlike Kelly’s other films, the expressionist Invitation to the Dance evokes the spirit and athleticism of dance through its non-traditional narrative and joyous gestures.

7. Big Top Pee-wee

Vance the pig is Pee-wee’s version of an imaginary friend. There’s no playhouse in Big Top Pee-wee, so Vance is the only audience Pee-wee has to show off his playthings. Then the circus comes to town, leading Pee-wee to form more relationships of the human kind. Vance symbolizes Pee-wee’s past that he tries to grow up from — the one he’s comfortable with and the one we love so much.

6. Fight Club

Repressed, heterosexual, white masculinity gets a real kick in the ass when it learns that its “power animal” is a docile, squeaky-voiced penguin.

5. Summer of Sam

When your talking animal id is a demonic dog voiced by John Turturro and it commands you to kill, then you’re pretty much screwed. That was the case in Spike Lee’s underrated Summer of Sam, which sets the film during the sweltering summer of 1977 when the real-life serial murders committed by David Berkowitz took place. Berkowitz, of course, believed that his neighbor’s labrador retriever Harvey was possessed by an evil demon that relentlessly taunted him. Maybe we need to give Spike Lee the freedom to get really weird again.

4. A Boy and His Dog

“Jiminy Cricket is one of my great role models, ’cause he represents conscience, loyalty, courage, friendship, all the things that I think are valuable traits in people. And Zorro!” Harlan Ellison stated in a 2008 interview. It was a sentiment he first expressed in Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre . This is why we see Ellison in the character Blood from 1975’s A Boy and His Dog, based on a series of stories by the author. The telepathic pup is a very sardonic, analytical character that keeps his post-apocalyptic companion Vic (yep, that’s 20-something Don Johnson playing an 18-year-old boy) supplied with women for sex (Vic only cares about his base appetites), while Vic supplies Blood with food.

3. Black Moon

We often think of animals as innocents since they cannot express themselves in the ways humans can. In Louise Malle’s allegorical Black Moon, talking animals are flippant, rude, and grotesque. When a unicorn scolds runaway Lily for trampling a field of flowers (the blooms actually scream in pain), she voices disapproval while chowing on the same wildflowers. “Suppose we change the subject?” the creature retorts after Lily points out the hypocrisy of it all. The beast’s pregnant belly, wheezing chortle, and lip-smacking gestures form the grotesque side of Malle’s pubescent fairy tale, in which animals are symbols of anxiety and desire.

2. Antichrist

Nothing to see here. Just a fox disemboweling itself and uttering the words “Chaos reigns” in a creepy voice. The Internet made the startling figure in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist a meme, but Slant’s Joseph Jon Lintier writes of the fox’s dual nature as an absurd departure and harbinger of our worst fears:

As the off-kilter and occasionally ridiculous scenarios intensify, He and She go down a slippery slope of panic-inspired anti-rationalism; a stillborn fawn dangling from a doe’s backside and a talking fox leisurely dining on its own entrails are silly manifestations of the rather frightening notion that nature is only a thief and not a gift-bearer of life. When recollected in post-anxiety tranquility, such anthropomorphic spook tactics seem childish; when we’re confronted with them in the midst of a fuzzy-eyed, tremor-inducing anxiety spell, we sweat in their presence. They’re rasping hallucinations, provoked by a seeping adrenaline leak, that mock the suffering and imperiously chortle at the sight of futile Xanax ingestion.

1. Tropical Malady

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s talking animals are mystical beings, symbols of the exoticism inherent in his works — a subject he often grapples with. They speak like humans, but look like monsters — a transference of anxiety and awe. “I like the settings where the lights and desire cross path. The desire to communicate with the invisibles in the darkness, or in memory, or in the future. It’s always related to cinema and we as insects that are drawn to lights,” the filmmaker explained in an interview with Vdrome. The dual plot in 2004’s Tropical Malady offers a romantic introduction (between two men), concluding in a chilling conversation in the forest between a soldier and a tiger. “The rupture transmigrates the narrative into a mystical realm, but it’s unclear if Keng and Tong have been banished or elevated to this plane of existence,” writes Dennis Lim of the Village Voice. “Was their love too intense for the material world? Does the fulfillment of animal hungers require the cover of darkness? The film’s mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny.”