This week’s Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore looks, frankly, cringe-worthy—but you can bet kids will love it. A German shepherd getting his butt stuck in a tube? The kids are there. A mechanical squirrel self-destructing after relaying a message, 007 style? Kiddies are going to love it. A mixture of real and CGI cats and dogs getting into shenanigans, flying through the air with rocket packs, and plotting revenge against humans? Oh, good.
I predict Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore won’t be a blockbuster, but there will be plenty of kids there opening night. Most of us, at a young age, attach to animated and/or animatronic animals, whether they be totally fictional, completely real with a twist, hilariously potty-mouthed, or downright silly.
Join for this week’s Listicle with William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) as we chronicle the best Animated (or Animatronic) Animals in recent history.
Muk and Luk (voiced by Phil Collins) in Balto (dir. Simon Wells, 1995)
Balto is a mostly animated family film that fell under the radar mainly because it’s not as good as the Disney fare of that time (which included The Lion King in 1994). Balto was the last feature produced by Amblimation, Stephen Spielberg’s pre-Dreamworks animation studio (and Dreamworks still isn’t making movies quite as good as Disney or Pixar, to tell the truth). Balto is the true story of an Alaskan half-wolf that led his sled team on a 600-mile journey across the rugged, snowy terrain of Alaska to retrieve diphtheria vaccines for the children of Nome. Balto’s tale inspired the legendary Iditarod dog race (the subject of that other nineties classic, Iron Will).
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for epic journeys. Also for cute, talking critters. Muk and Luk the polar bears are two of Balto’s companions, and they are adorable. One (I don’t remember which) speaks, while the other makes silly little chirping and grunting noises. They are polar bears…who can’t swim. When they overcome this handicap to rescue Balto, it’s enough to make one tear up. When they start smacking each other and being adorable again, it’s enough to make one chuckle. The movie may not be the best, but these characters are enough to make me watch it every so often. As an added bonus, they’re voiced by Phil Collins, Disney’s soundtrack go-to man and lead singer of Genesis.
Did I mention they’re nearly obnoxiously cute? Okay, ‘nuff said.
Filbert (Mr. Lawrence) in “Rocko’s Modern Life” (created by Joe Murray, 1993-1996)
Let’s take a moment to examine how completely bizarre and gross some of the late-80s and early-90s kids’ TV shows were. We had “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” “Ahhh! Real Monsters!,” “Doug,” “Rugrats,” and later on, “Catdog” and “The Angry Beavers.” None of these made much sense, and most were totally strange. Aside from “Ren and Stimpy,” though, “Rocko’s Modern Life” was perhaps the weirdest show on TV. It was also one of the smartest.
Rocko the Australian wallaby moved from his home country to the U.S.A., where he resided in O Town, also home of wacky cow Heffer, obnoxious boss Mr. Bighead, and pitifully miserable and nerdy turtle Filbert. Filbert had a lot of great moments over the show’s tenure, but he’s best known for retreating into his shell, rocking back and forth on the ground, and muttering, “I’m nauseous, I’m nauseous, I’m nauseous.” I confess, it sometimes still comes out of my mouth unbidden when I’m feeling particularly carsick. Oh, “Rocko’s Modern Life,” where is your modern equivalent?
Ducky (Judith Barsi) in The Land Before Time (dir. Don Bluth, 1988)
Before there were eight kajillion sequels to The Land Before Time, there was the original. In the film (which to this day can still make me cry), tiny brachiosaur Littlefoot searches for The Green Valley during one of prehistory’s many extinctions. After a massive earthquake separates him from his grandparents and kills his mother, Littlefoot unites with a group of other baby dinosaurs, including triceratops Sara, stegosaurus Spike, pterodactyl Petrie, and Saurolophus Ducky. As the group journeys across barren terrain, they become fast friends, finally discovering that fabled Green Valley. (What? I told you I’m a sucker for epic journeys.)
The Land Before Time is a fantastic example of Don Bluth’s animation style: deep color saturation, gorgeous movement, prominent shadows, and scares galore have fascinated children since the movie released. On a personal note, my deaf cat is really enthralled by this movie—whenever it’s on, he sits and stares raptly at the TV for the whole 80 minutes.
Each dinosaur has his or her own personality, of course, and Ducky is the completely agreeable, though silly, one. She’s a tiny, bumpy-headed creature who’s always cheering the others on, screeching with delight, and saying, “Yep, yep, yep!” Which, once again, I repeat on occasion without thinking about it. Spike’s adorable dimwittedness, Littlefoot’s perfection, and Petrie’s terror of flying may float others’ boats, but Ducky is the one for me.
Falkor (Alan Oppenheimer) in The NeverEnding Story (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)
It’s no secret The NeverEnding Story is one of my favorite childhood movies. It’s not hard to guess that I still harbor a (not-so) secret desire for a luck dragon. I mean, come on, Falkor is a giant, scaly, furry, benevolent dog-dragon who can fly. Who wouldn’t want to bypass rush hour and cruise into the office on this guy’s back? He’d undoubtedly provide you with great conversation and a contagious smile along the way.
We all need more Falkor in our lives.
Monstro The Whale in Pinnochio (dir. Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)
Monstro The Whale scares the living crap out of me. Present tense. When I was a child seeing Pinnochio for the first time I was of course entrance by the exquisite beauty of the animation, but all of the truly unspeakable horrors of the film – mostly revolving around child slavery, for some reason – went completely over my head until a single shot that still gives me shivers to this very day. Pinnochio and Jiminy Cricket are underwater, looking for Geppetto, when they come across an enormous dark shape in the water. At first it’s difficult to make out what it is. Until finally a swarm of tiny bubbles emerge its mouth in the distance. I distinctly remember the low music and sudden, overpowering sense of scale wrapped around my brain, suffocating it with an impossible realization that something that big could actually exist, and want to do me harm. What hope was there in this universe for a little boy like myself?
Naturally I’m a man now, and completely immune to such intense feelings of dread. Or so I thought. When Pinnochio was finally released in high-definition I watched the film again and that same scene hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t the sudden rush of terror I experienced as a child, but rather the distinct memory of that terror. Like the smell of hot fudge brings me back to joyous Christmas mornings, the sight of Monstro The Whale brought me back to cowering fear at the immense possibilities for horror in the universe. And that… is awesome. Nothing could make me happier than being so perfectly manipulated by a masterful piece of filmmaking. There’s no animated animal more impressive than Monstro, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Appa The Air Bison (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, 2005-2008)
It would be easy to relegate Appa The Air Bison to the role of a plot convenience and leave it at that. That’s what M. Night Shyamalan did, after all. Appa’s size and ability to fly allows the protagonists of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to travel the world with relative speed, which in turn contributes to the epic nature of the series. But Appa isn’t just a mystical equivalent of Nick Fury’s flying Ferrari: He’s as integral a character to “Avatar’s” narrative as any other.
When Aang (Zach Tyler) awakes from his Captain America-esque imprisonment in a glacier, the only surviving member of his family is his Air Bison, Appa. Every child protagonist is entitled to a pet, but after Aang finally comes to terms with the genocide of his people, the only attachment he has to his past is Appa, voiced perfectly (as always) by Dee Bradley Baker. Though incapable of speech, Appa’s attachment to Aang and his own needs as a character are vital to the plot, and never moreso than in the second half of Book 2: Earth, when Appa is kidnapped by Sand Benders. For episodes on end, Appa’s absence can be seen weighing on Aang’s shoulders and the emotional turmoil places him in increased states of decidedly un-Avatar-like rage. But Appa’s finest hour as a character was in the episode “Appa’s Lost Days,” perhaps the most tragic episode of the series, which chronicled the horrific events that stemmed from Appa’s incarceration, slavery in a circus, and his greater part in the terrific tale of Season 2.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox in The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009)
I was never a big fan of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox as a kid, although I read every single one of Dahl’s children’s books. It was only after seeing Wes Anderson’s wonderful adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox that I realized why. Unlike most of Dahl’s books for younger readers, the journey being taken is not by a young character, but a man with a family who depends on him for sustenance. It’s a children’s story about adults, and as such it never appealed to me in the same way Matilda or Danny, Champion of the World ever did.
Wes Anderson expands upon these mature themes in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, adding a prologue that establishes Fox’s transition from immaturity to, frankly, still being immature but forcing himself to behave otherwise for the sake of those he loves. Voiced perfectly by George Clooney, Mr. Fox is like a lot of adults: a great big kid who really doesn’t know what he’s doing, just what he wants. And of course, being a story, Mr. Fox finds that what he wants isn’t always what he needs, and learns a valuable lesson at the end that never entirely manages to damage his integrity as a character. In a film full of colorful side characters and non-stop whimsy, the protagonist somehow manages to steal the show with his complex nature, love of adventure and a personality that is always in conflict with itself. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie I’ve watch more often than most since its release last year, and Mr. Fox himself is a big part of the reason why.
Archimedes the Owl in The Sword in the Stone (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963)
The pint-sized fowl in question is the long-suffering familiar of sorcerer Merlin in Disney’s madcap musical comedy The Sword In the Stone. At first glance he is everything an animal companion should not be – irritable, solitary, and derisive of the wizard’s attempts to educate the young Arthur (soon to be king) in the ways of the world. It seems he would like nothing better than to roost comfortably atop Merlin’s high pointed hat. Instead, he gets roped against his will into every harebrained adventure the cantankerous old sorcerer can devise.
Bill Watterson, speaking of Calvin’s tiger friend Hobbes, once referred to the feline’s “barely contained pride in not being human.” Archimedes the owl does far less than contain his pride. He brings it up every chance he can, proclaiming Merlin’s spells and his and crackpot visions of human progress to be “futuristic fiddle-faddle.” To be fair, the clever but clumsy sorcerer usually presents a less-than-convincing argument that humankind will ever see the end of the Dark Ages. He can hardly cast a single spell, or even walk out the door, without getting tripped up in his own ancient and ridiculous beard.
With just Merlin for company most of the time, it’s hardly surprising that Archimedes has grown so stuffy and bad-tempered. However, like any pair of sparring roommates, they have their good times too. And when danger threatens, the little owl’s loyalty gets the better of his dignity and he comes flying (often crashing) to the rescue.
Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Dinosaurs have a long history in film and television, from King Kong to Ice Age to… well, who remembers Dino Riders? The great lumbering lizards have always been popular, but not before or since Jurassic Park have they been so convincingly integrated into a live-action environment. Say what you must with the benefit of hindsight and the progress of special and visual effects since 1993. Those dinos still look amazing. Director Spielberg had the right idea, tapping special effects legend Stan Winston to design animatronic foreground creatures and mostly relying on computer imagery to patch cracks and fill out the atmosphere. Live matter onscreen cannot and will not be supplanted, no matter how great computer rendering has gotten.
There have been a number of competent and entertaining depictions of dinosaurs onscreen. Ray Harryhausen’s work comes to mind, as does the BBC’s clever Walking With Dinosaurs documentary. But Jurassic Park really drove the idea home that “woah, these things – at some point – were real!” Real scary, if they happen to be the carnivore kind. Or merely big enough to step on you.
I nod with respect to the movie’s main antagonists, a pack of hungry and very cunning velociraptors. But the true test of a great performer is to steal the show with limited screen time. And through a lot of clever design and expert staging, the sinister twenty-foot Rex looms over the whole adventure as an unstoppable force of destruction. It is rare that a movie monster has such power to delight and terrify viewers of all ages. Jurassic Park was a Hollywood mega-hit, and rightly so. Winston and Spielberg delivered exactly the picture of dinosaurs that most of us imagined and wanted to believe in as kids. In doing so, they did a great service to the imagination of the movie watcher. Go and watch this one during a hard rainstorm and you’ll see what I mean.
Nibbler in Futurama (by Matt Groening and company, 1999 – ??)
For a creature bestowed with an indefinite lifespan, possessed of unmatched mental prowess, and saddled with the responsibility of saving the universe time and time again, wouldn’t it be tempting to moonlight as someone’s dimwitted pet for a while? Encountered by chance by the Planet Express delivery crew in an early episode, Nibbler quickly became a crucial fixture of the Futurama universe. To begin with, he’s a cute little three-eyed creature of indeterminate extraction. As the pet of space heroine Leela, he runs around peeping and jabbering excitedly (courtesy of Frank Welker, perhaps the most accomplished and respected voice actor working today). In addition, he viciously devours everything in sight, provided it’s made of meat and larger than him. And his little metabolism outputs starship fuel (in the form of dark matter). What a great little comic reliever!
Then, quite abruptly, Nibbler reveals himself as a member of an ancient galactic race, who live on an exceedingly cute planet but nevertheless hold the key secrets of space and time. He affects a booming, authoritative voice and orchestrates complicated plans to keep the fabric of the universe intact. He never succeeds completely, but somehow the universe gets by.
No matter how high the stakes, Nibbler and his compatriots punctuate their solemn pronouncements by acting like adorable little critters. This inability to be taken seriously by the rest of the universe may explain a lot of the problems that same universe faces every day. Nonetheless he battles on, for freedom, justice, and the Feast of a Thousand Hams.
Noteworthy and quoteworthy: near the end of the long-form episode Bender’s Big Score, Nibbler has the privilege of delivering what may be the finest line written for science fiction:
“Everyone out of the universe! Quick!”