Katja Jylkka’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Disney has always toyed with the boundary between man and animal. As The Toast has covered previously, these boundaries have not necessarily been consistent across its films. The ecology of Disney is a strange and unknowable realm, and nowhere is that more clear than in examining its animal sidekicks.
Their sentience varies, as does their capacity for human speech. Take, as examples, Archimedes and the owl from Sleeping Beauty. Archimedes, Merlin’s owl familiar and sidekick in The Sword in the Stone, is essentially a gruff little human, articulate and apparently just as well read as Merlin. The owl from Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand, is nameless and just anthropomorphic enough to know what dancing is. Potentially the same species (or at least the same order), these two birds play different roles in the films and could not be more behaviorally distinct.
Unnamed Sleeping Beauty Owl
Characters such as Archimedes and, say, Ariel’s friend Flounder, are so anthropomorphic that they not only have to worry about animal dangers (getting eaten by predatory fish, for example), but also about the quagmire of human problems (getting into disagreements with their human friend/master).
But what about the animals that are “just” animals, the ones that are the least anthropomorphized and (largely) incapable of speech, but are still important characters in their own right? In the Disney films of yore, does their non-speaking status give them license to act truer to their real-life animal counterparts?
In some ways, no. The shared role of many Disney sidekicks – to take charge of all of the worrying that the protagonist doesn’t have the time or inclination for or, conversely, to get into all the mischief that the main character shies away from – means that the same personality gets doled out to many critters regardless of their species. Take Meeko, Pocahontas’s raccoon buddy, and Abu, Aladdin’s little simian friend – their gluttonous, mischievous, yet loyal qualities have strong similarities, happy to help their human friend, but probably stuffing stolen food into their cheeks or little vest first. That being said, there have tended to be moments when it is clear that the animators used live animals to model their characters’ movements on (something that often happens, in both Disney and non-Disney films using animated animals.) An example that jumps to mind is Meeko using his front paws to clean crumbs off his snout, or when the animators behind How to Train Your Dragon’s Toothless talk about their desire to incorporate a rabbit’s specific hopping maneuver into the dragon’s movements. Animators will watch hours of YouTube videos featuring the target animal, and studios consider it well worth their money to bring in experts on animal behavior and sometimes live animals themselves so as to best realize their characters.
So, what’s with all the dogs then?
Let me explain.
And first off, don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. At a party, I can probably be found in the kitchen, making friends with the host’s dog and ignoring crowds of my fellow humans. I even have one of my own – which is why I took particular notice when canine behaviors started popping up in weird places.
Don’t believe me?
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
“But that’s part of the story!” you say. “Of course Stitch isn’t really a dog, that’s why it’s funny.” True. The movie’s premise – that an alien mutant finds refuge on Earth and masquerades as a young girl’s rescue dog to evade capture – depends on the idea that it’s ridiculous that anyone truly buy that this blue, bipedal creature is a dog. “You sure it’s a dog?” their friend David asks, nervously. “Uh huh,” Lilo responds, “He used to be a collie before he got ran over.” But there are moments, Stitch’s propensity for growling and for sniffing out the location of people and things in particular, when his canine-ness isn’t all feigned. Apparently, in the prequel comics for Lilo & Stitch, it is explained “One of the genes was from a puppy, explaining Stitch’s resemblance to a dog (though Jumba did not know how it got in there).”
If that didn’t convince you, maybe this will. When the protagonist, Aladar, crosses paths with a herd of dinosaurs all heading to the nesting grounds, he meets Eema, another dinosaur, and Url, her pet dinosaur. Let me say that again: Eema is a styracosaurus, a triceratops-looking animal, and Url is an ankylosaurus, squat and small and canine in a way that no other dinosaurs in the movie are. Watch as Url meets Aladar for the first time (from about :30- :48), panting in excitement, apparently incapable of speech like the other dinosaurs, capering, spinning and wagging its spiked tail.
Hercules is the first of a number of Disney movies to give the steed some less steed-ly, more canine characteristics. Described by Zeus as “a magnificent horse…with the brain of a bird,” Pegasus has a little more than that going on, considering his propensity for licking those he loves. Now, there’s some debate about this. Some horse experts claim that licking from a horse is the animal being “fresh” and is only the prelude to a bite, while others say that “lipping” and licking are normal signs of a horse’s affection for humans. Considering how my dog wakes me up most mornings, Pegasus’s preferred method of greeting his favorite human looks pretty canine to me.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Phoebus’s horse Achilles responds to two typically canine commands in his brief time in the movie’s spotlight: sitting on command (to stop a guard from chasing Esmeralda) and heeling next to Phoebus as they walk down the street. Fun fact: the horse’s name is Achilles for the sole reason that the movie’s writers could then include the line “Achilles, heel!”
The equine meets its height of canine in Maximus, the horse who takes upon himself the task of hunting down Flynn Rider. Maximus literally sniffs out Flynn like a hound on the scent. Finding Flynn, he is ready to turn the criminal in until Rapunzel orders him to sit on his haunches and drop the boot he was holding. Scratching him under the chin, he defies both his anatomy and the laws of physics to wag his tail and kicks his hind leg.
The last and most recent spread of the canine has been all the way to the ungulate realm in Disney’s Scandinavia. Sven the reindeer, like his equine predecessors, is more dog than anything else. Reindeer, like dogs, do naturally pant when overheated… but they don’t wag their little nub of a tail or move with the loping, loose-limbed bounciness that Sven does. His official Disney bio even calls him a “reindeer with the heart of a Labrador,” and the animators credit inspiration for Sven’s movements not only to the live reindeer brought into the studio for that purpose, but also to Frankie, John Lasseter’s dog.
In movies like these, Disney’s behavioral biodiversity divides more simply into dog-like and non-dog-like. Apart from movies explicitly focused on dogs (Bolt, for example), actual dogs are fairly rare. Yet the behaviors and character traits we most often associate with dogs – their goofy good nature, loyalty, and familiar ways of showing affection – are just too useful to give up, and already handily “coded” for us.