A vast majority of us are animal lovers, and there is no denying that animal characters have provided a great source for lazy screenwriters to use cheap cliché to tug at our heartstrings (for example, Marley & Me). However some of the most memorable companionships in cinema have been between a human and animal, adding depth to the whole buddy concept. I am not including animated films that cheat and just make animals essentially human (whether they can speak or not), but ones where the animal is an animal, working on an at times completely different subconscious, ideological and at times moral levels, because they are simply animals. This makes the companionship more complex, but ultimately more fascinating and very often emotionally rewarding.
This is of course based solely on the films I have personally seen and I do not claim this to be any kind of top 10 ever in the history of cinema. This is simply my top 10 of the most engaging, moving and ultimately powerful human-animal relationships I have seen in films, and I implore animal lovers not to be moved by any of my personal top 10.
Any personal suggestions that anyone feels I have missed, and any feedback in general is as always of course, greatly appreciated.
PS. For anyone who has not seen any of the films mentioned, my descriptions do contain spoilers.
1. Billy and Kes – Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)
The concept of a young boy whose repressed and underprivileged life is given meaning by forming a relationship with an animal, in this case a kestrel, does sound on paper very clichéd. However through Ken Loach’s raw and honest approach to film making, Kes avoids all the clichés. Of course life is often cruel, and the ending in which Billy’s horrible older brother simply snaps Kes’ neck and throws him in a bin is one of the most devastating endings to a film I have ever seen. The raw and devastating impact of this tragic moment is emphasised all the more by Loach’s matter-of fact style of film making. No matter what anyone thinks of British social-realism cinema, I doubt anyone could watch Kes and not shed a tear at the end.
2. Pi and Richard Parker – Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)
Ang Lee’s visually stunning version of the apparently un-filmable book by Yann Martel is a visual spectacle, but has at its heart an unforgettable companionship between a boy and a Bengal tiger as the two are the sole survivors of a shipwreck having to share a small lifeboat. Through gradual training and pavlovian conditioning Pi and Richard Parker form a mutual dependency on one another that makes the moment they eventually unceremoniously part ways all the more devastating for Pi and us to watch. This is a harsh reminder that Richard Parker is of course a wild animal and as soon the companions finally reach land, he no longer needs Pi. When Richard Parker stops on the edge of the forest we all want him to look back, but of course he does not.
3. Umberto and Flike – Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
For me the finest of the Italian New Wave films, Umberto D. is a moving story of an old Roman man named Umberto (Carlo Battisti) trying to survive in Italy’s deep post war recession. With his only friend in the world being his pet dog Flike, as cheesy as it sounds this is a raw, honest and deeply powerful story. Finding himself homeless and increasingly desperate, Umberto decides he has no choice but to commit suicide and so continues to attempt to give Flike away, but his loyal friend always finds him. The moment when Umberto takes Flike into his arms and stands in front of a speeding train is of devastating power, but the ending that follows is even more moving: Extremely scared, Flike jumps away and Umberto follows him, and realising the pain he has caused his loyal friend and the fact he cannot abandon him, Umberto sits in the park and plays with his beloved dog finally finding a reason to live.
4. Joseph and Bluey – Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)
Though it is a tragically short relationship within the narrative, the opening scene in which the short tempered and deeply troubled Joseph (Peter Mullan) loses his temper and kicks and kills Bluey sets in a motion a powerful tale of redemption and catharsis. Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a brutal, raw and heartfelt story that I would recommend to all who appreciate great story telling. However, Joseph’s love for Bluey and deep remorse for killing him plays a huge and moving part of the entire narrative, playing a part in why he is a protagonist we at first naturally despise but yet feel compassion for.
5. Robert and Sam – I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007)
Admittedly the story of man living in an isolated post apocalyptic world after a deadly virus outbreak is perhaps nothing new, but Will Smith holds the screen well and his friendship with his German shepherd named Sam providing the heart and soul of the film. One of the main rules for Hollywood blockbusters is ‘the dog always survives’ (remember the tunnel scene in Independence Day?), however that is not the case here and when Sam is bitten by an infected Dog, Robert’s attempts to save her prove useless so Robert is forced to strangle his only companion before the infection completely takes over. This not only changes Robert’s behaviour and attitude to survival in the film, but there is not a dry eye anywhere.
6. Victor and Sparky – Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
Yes I know it is stop-motion and therefore animated, but in what is Tim Burton’s most personal and by far best film for a very long time is a beautiful depiction of a relationship between a child and his pet that any animal lover can relate to. Sparky is not a dog that can talk or think like a human, but simply a loyal pet with a mutual close friendship with his owner, so therefore Frankenweenie as far as I am concerned does qualify for my top 10.
Though of course none of us have tried to bring any pet back to life through science, there is an undeniably universal sentiment behind Victor’s desire to bring Sparky back into his life after he is tragically killed. Frankenweenie is a fun homage to horror films, but also contains at its heart the close relationship between a boy and his best friend who happens to be an animal, and therefore a film that any animal lover cannot help but be moved by.
7. Scott Turner and Hooch – Turner & Hooch (Roger Spottiswoode, 1989)
I may be a little biased here as Turner & Hooch is a film I grew up watching, and there is no doubt it is a typical 80s crime drama. However, changing the buddy movie dynamic to one of the biggest stars in the world (Hanks) and a slobbery Dogue de Bordeaux who is seemingly the only witness in a murder that Turner is investigating did simply work. Yes, K-9 came out a little earlier and has a similar plot, but Turner & Hooch was far better and great fun, and of course it is impossible not to shed a tear at the film’s sad ending.
8. George and Beethoven – Beethoven (Brian Levant, 1992)
Beethoven as a film is admittedly a slightly clichéd family film (and the less said about the sequels the better), but it is great fun and at its centre is the relationship between Beethoven the St. Bernard and his reluctant owner, George (Charles Grodin). George’s character arc is again text book but the inevitable high jinks and Grodin’s increasingly exasperated expressions are good fun to watch. Of course the scene in which George takes Beethoven to the vets to be put down after he is wrongly accused of attacking someone is deeply moving, despite this being a family film and we all know everything will be fine in the end. There is no doubt that anyone who has had to take that horrible journey to the vets knowing the tragic end that awaits their pet while they seem oblivious (even though it is for the best) will find horrible familiarity in that moving scene.
9. Bastian and Artax – The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Peterson, 1984)
Possibly a film looked upon more fondly by children of the 80s like myself than anyone else, and it certainly feels dated now, but the story of a boy (Barret Oliver) who enters a mystical fantasy world through reading a book is still a very entertaining watch. Though it is a short lived companionship I doubt any child of the 80s didn’t bawl their eyes out when our companions enter the Swamp of Sadness, Artax starts to sink, the synthesised music gets louder and Bastian shouts the immortal words “Artax, don’t let the sadness of the swamps get to you!”
10. Korben and Sweetie – The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)
Though only appearing in one scene in the film, the relationship between Korben (Bruce Willis) and Sweetie certainly rings true with many cat lovers everywhere. Firstly the cat just sits at home dossing about all day watching TV, as all cats do, and when Korben is asked about still being single and having a cat, his response is “at least the cat comes back”. I can hear animal lovers everywhere who find animals to be far more loyal than people saying: “Amen to that!”
Honourable mention. Cowboy, Indian and Horse – A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009)
Though it does not exactly qualify for the criteria of my top 10, the relationship between the three plastic toy figures (!) of a cowboy, an Indian and a horse in this bizarre acid trip of a film simply has to get a mention. They live together in a house, engaging often in conversation with the horse being very much the sensible patriarch of the family who drives a car, while Cowboy and Indian act like silly children. To demonstrate the closeness of their friendship Cowboy and Indian buy a new barbecue for Horse’s birthday and all three embark on a quest together to the centre of the earth to retrieve their house after it is stolen. If you have not seen this bonkers film, then do and what I have just written will make sense (sort of).