Generally it is possible to establish a sort of makeshift sliding scale of animal morality and sentience in most Disney films by sorting them into a carniverous/anthropomorphic matrix: animals that eat other animals are likeliest (though not always) to be villains, animals with the most human-like characteristics are likeliest to be heroes. And yet there is a maddening inconsistency to this sorting mechanism: lizards are sometimes villainous henchmen, sometimes two-timing traitors, sometimes helpful weirdos. Rats sometimes act exactly as they do in the wild (and try to kill human children), sometimes walk on two legs and wear hats and blend in seamlessly with human society, and sometimes become executive chefs. This week we examine the problem of the wolf.
What to do with the wolf? Is he the noble, wilder brother of the dog or a savage scavenger? The villainous counterpart to the more sociable fox? Does he go on all fours? Does he speak? Can he feel?
Movie: Robin Hood
Wolf(ves) Present: The Sheriff of Nottingham, wolf archers (they look like giant rats to me, but the Disney Wiki calls them wolf archers and I defer to their authority on this subject)
Level of Sentience: Fully humanoid. The Sheriff walks like a person and wears shoes and a doublet and one of those little medieval hats, although oddly enough he speaks like an old-timey prospector, in the manner of many a corrupt fictional officer of the law.
Moral Alignment: A real dick. He steals coins out of that injured dog’s cast! General attitude: cheerful but sleepily evil. He’s got tiny eyes. Nobody with tiny eyes is good, in a Disney movie.
Movie: The Jungle Book
Wolf(ves) Present: So many! Mowgli’s brothers, Rama, Mowgli’s foster-father, the entire Wolf Council
Level of Sentience: Advanced. They don’t wear clothes or walk on their hind legs, but they do have a fairly complex social and judicial structure, inasmuch as their Wolf Council bears a striking similarity to Iceland’s Althing. Due process is a big thing with them. Also, the animation from the scene where the grown wolf cubs lick Mowgli’s face is recycled from a similar scene in The Sword in the Stone, which explains why Mowgli has the same haircut as a young King Arthur.
Moral Alignment: Good as hell. They adopt Mowgli as an infant and raise him as one of their own, instead of eating his entire body. Friends with panthers and bears (good), enemies of tigers (evil, which is its own messed-up alignment; why is a panther nice and a tiger evil when they’re practically the same animal? Ridiculous).
Movie: The Big Bad Wolf
Wolf(ves) Present: The big bad wolf.
Level of Sentience: The wolf equivalent of Danny DeVito’s character from Matilda. A shady huckster. I don’t remember offhand if the old top hat he wears has the brim coming off, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he did. Walks on hind legs and wears human clothes, but still tries to eat pigs while they’re raw and alive, which seems to me the worst of both worlds.
Moral Alignment: Not great. In some of the early animated shorts, he has a young son named Li’l Bad Wolf, who tries and fails to be evil, which is fairly humanizing; in some of the others he has three evil sons (with no sign of Li’l Bad Wolf at all; it’s possible that he has two separate families with two separate female wolves, possibly one good and one evil, which would explain the varying moral alignments of his offspring). Here are his evil sons putting Tabasco sauce on the Three Little Pigs.
The Disney Wiki entry on the etymology of his full name, by the way, is too fantastic for words:
One of Big Bad Wolf’s names, Zeke Midas Wolf, has two origins: The first name, Zeke, is a shortened form of Ezekiel, Hebrew for “God is my Strength.” It was also the codename for a World War II Japanese fighter plane. The middle name, Midas, is a name of Greek origin relating to the legend of Midas, who was believed to turn things into solid gold as a gift from the Gods, which led to his downfall when he accidentally killed his daughter by turning her into a golden statue with his power.
You can’t ask for more thoroughness than that.
Movie: Peter and the Wolf
Wolf(ves) Present: The wolf.
Level of Sentience: This wolf is beyond sentience. This wolf is the essence of poisoned nightmare fuckery. Remember the wolf from The Neverending Story? Gmork? Remember what he says to Atreyu at the end?
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger. It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it. Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control…has the power! I am the servant of the power behind the Nothing. I was sent to kill the only one who could have stopped the Nothing. I lost him in the Swamps of Sadness.”
This wolf’s heart and that wolf’s heart are the same.
Moral Alignment: Horror.
Movie: Beauty and the Beast
Wolf(ves) Present: The wolf pack just outside of the Beast’s castle.
Level of Sentience: Enough to growl and to advance menacingly; not enough to attack as a coordinated unit
Moral Alignment: Mindlessly evil. It’s odd, perhaps, that in a land of talking clocks and cabinets we should encounter such dim wolves, but there one is. Even Phillipe, the horse, seems dimly aware of the world around him and is capable of obeying basic directions, but these wolves are goddamn simpletons. There are at least eight of them, and after they (finally) manage to run Belle down, they waste their best chance by snapping showily at a massive Clydesdale instead of going for the exhausted woman lying motionless in the snow. They could have had her divvied up and skinned before the Beast even shows up, but they waste their time prancing uselessly around Phillipe, giving Belle a chance to grab a club and end their home-court advantage.
Movie: The Sword in the Stone
Wolf(ves) Present: The sad little scraggly wolf who never gets to eat Wart
Level of Sentience: None. He is driven by nothing more than his animal instincts. He tries to eat Wart, it’s true, but this is not an act of malice or even intent. He is hunger wrapped in skin. He fails and he suffers.
Moral Alignment: Desperate. He’s the saddest little wolf that I ever did see. Kay says that the woods Wart runs into are “swarming with wolves,” but this sad, gasping specimen seems to be entirely alone. He is old, we know that. His fur is ragged and thatched; his ribs protrude under his mangy hide; his eyebrows are a grandfather’s eyebrows. He is whippet-thin, thinner even than Wart — his tongue is his most prominent feature. He drools actively. He tires easily. He is pelted by boulders and half-drowned in freezing rivers and stuffed into hollow trees and runs himself ragged chasing a meal he will never catch. When last we see him, he is exhausted, thwarted, defeated; death is close at hand. Without food, he cannot possibly make it through another winter, and there is no food.
Movie: Red Hot Riding Hood
Wolf(ves) Present: Just goes by “Wolf” (“Wolfie” for that hot-to-trot grandma).
Level of Sentience: He goes to nightclubs and drinks orange drinks with little umbrellas with them; dresses like a slightly louche Bertie Wooster and catcalls nightclub singers. Partial self-awareness.
Moral Alignment: Oh, man. I’m not sure where to land on this one. He is definitely a creep of the highest order, but he’s so horrifically traumatized by the persistent seduction attempts of Granny that he commits suicide at the end of the cartoon. Then his ghost, unable to find peace, returns to compulsively holler at strange women — and this is the altered ending, after the original was deemed “too controversial.” I feel enormous sorrow for this emotionally stunted wolf, as trapped in death as he was in life. He is more to be pitied than censured, although you are welcome to do both, if you like.
[Images via Disney Wiki]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.