Movies offer a wide range of animal stars and co-stars, made into characters by the way they’re shot and directed and the way we can interpret–and possibly project upon–their looks and behavior. Children’s and family movies sometimes put the animals center-stage, giving them literal voices (Homeward Bound), protagonist status (Black Beauty), or making them both the comedic and emotional centerpiece (Marley and Me). There’s an entire subgenre of animal-related road trip movies, ranging in tone from “wacky hijinks” to “bittersweet” (Harry & Tonto) to quietly despairing (Wendy and Lucy); in the latter cases, an animal companion to the protagonist can be their sometimes-failing bulwark against loneliness, the last available way for them to show and receive compassion. There are manipulatively sentimental animal pictures–dogs are especially prone to inevitable, heartbreaking deaths–and ones that handle the same profound sense of love and loss with more delicacy or specificity. A human character’s bond with an animal can be the primary pull of the film, narratively and emotionally (The Black Stallion).
And then, of course, you have films that use their animals in more idiosyncratic ways, from the unforced allegory of Au hasard Balthazar and its mild-eyed donkey to the roiling, assembling ants in Phase IV to the eminent threat of the lions in Roar or the victim-turned-terror of the dog in The Thing.
What are your favorite ways for movies to make use of animals? What are some things you’re tired of seeing? And what are some individual animal performances that have stayed with you?