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Talking animals...why are we so attached to the talking animals? The Pimp, of course, has some ideas.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Monthly provocative, drunken, idiotic ramblings from the North

Every culture has its own animal stories. When we tell stories about animals acting like humans, we are better able to see ourselves in the Circle of Life.

-- Roy Disney

Wo... man... a talkin' dog?!... What were you guys smokin'?

-- Otto

It's amazing how much one utterly barely worthy of being deemed disposable film triggered in my cerebrum, but it was during the process of losing about 80 minutes of my life that I had one of those bizarre Dutch skunk induced seizures. Minutes that I WILL remember when I'm fighting those last conscious moments, struggling to breath my last breathes of love and wisdom to family and friends. Slowly, gently, shaking my head as it struggles unsuccessfully to remain upright, only to collapse into the stiff uncaring pillow. I see white all around me, the illimitable sky. The swans float serenely along the dawdling sky hued riverbed enveloped by an awe-inspiring transcendent harmony that we cannot speak, cannot imagine. This silent paradise is soon interrupted by the sound of human voices and musical instruments. No...wait.... It's coming from the swans. But how is this? How can it be that they breathe my language? It turns out that my final fleeting spiritual embodiment, the final step toward wholeness and harmony is but a scene from a fucking animation film I saw decades ago. This is no path to paradise, it is the beginning of my eternal residence in hell, where for ridiculing all that the gods deemed sacred and pure, I am forced to re-live scenes from The Trumpet of The Swan.

You know when those few spliffs of Dutch skunk have finally clicked in the brain? It's usually when you realize that you've been obsessing over how men's shaving commercials always have women in them for what seems like hours, but it's only been seconds. When you're listening to, say, The Who, and you are able to tune out everything but Entwistle's bass. You hear his frantic rumbling thumps clearer than ever before. It was kinda like that during Trumpet. The concept of talking animals overwhelmed me. Animals as human stand-ins suddenly seemed like the strangest, most absurd action imaginable. Remember The Simpsons' bit about the sex-ed film where they used fluffy bunnies to teach children about sex? Why on earth would you teach children/adults ideas about the human world using squirrels and ducks and horses? It's absolutely eye rolling, head quiveringly insane.

We Even Have A Word For It

We usually call this anthropomorphism. It comes from the Greek title above meaning "human form." The word though is misleading as its roots are connected with the notion of giving human characteristics and form to anything non-human. So, for e.g., Homer's inclusion of Zeus in human form is anthropomorphism. Monsters Inc., Luxo Jr., Toy Story, MVP (where they have this chimp dolled up in Poochie inspired threads) and on and on and on...are all anthropomorphic films.

Now visual interpretations of animals can be traced back to Ice Age cave paintings (no...not that Blue Sky film). The paintings seemed to be a mix of religious or magical (animals were often seen as mythological creatures) symbols or as diagrams for hunting (see Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth). The hunting paintings were almost like rehearsals for the actual kill. There were apparently even marks found on some of these drawings suggesting that perhaps the hunters felt that what they did to the rendering would also occur in reality. The paintings were often skilful re-creations of the movement and form of the animals. Other images depicted animals doing the nasty or even human-animal characters. For Jungians the crossbreed portraits were linked to the primitive animal instinct within humans. There were accompanying ceremonies with masks, dances based on animal movements. Human identity submerged into animal during these rituals. Maybe it was felt that one could vanquish all animalistic rage from within? Maybe it was just some guilt release for killing? Maybe they just like the friggin shape of the animals? Perhaps there was some weird sex shit happening? Whatever. Either way, there was an aspect of spiritual awe and respect connected with these early paintings.

And of course if we turn to religions, we can find all sorts of animal symbols. Apu's Ganesh monument is human-elephant. Ol' perv Zeus would often take the form of an animal when he sought to vanquish some seed...and yadda yadda yadda...that Christian superstud, J.C. is connected with animals right from the get go.

In Greek literature, Aristophanes actually mocked men's desire to emulate animals in his farce, The Birds where two men, tired of the rigours and tyranny of Athenian society decide to bail and join with the birds. Eventually the two twits take over the bird race and turn it into the very society they fled. And Aesop's Fables are perhaps the most enduring, although today most of us know only the sanitized versions courtesy of those fun-loving Ivy League-Victorian-pull over wearing Christians. Aesop's Fables also provided material for animation, notably Walt Disney's Tortoise and The Hare.

And rather than trace through the whole history of art and animals (including live-action animal films like Benji, bizarre cross-breeding epics like the Shaggy D.A., Disney nature films, Fairy Tales...and my favourites, The Master and Margarita and Heart of The Dog, two fine books by Mikhail Bulgakov), let's skip ahead and focus on animation. Animation, perhaps more than any other art, has relied heavily on the use of animals to transmit perceptions of human behaviour and form. Why animals? It's likely a combination of the influence of comic strips, photographs and fairy tales. And as Linda Simensky (Cartoon Network) told me, a need/desire/pressure in 1920s animation to do the most absurd things...like making animals and objects talk. Now most of this stuff (Felix, Gertie, Bugs, Daffy) was not aimed at children, but adults. Disney was maybe the first to tailor animal (and hell, animation) toward children.

An Enduring Love

Why are kids so taken with animals? Well one schlub named Dan Acuff noted: "Research has shown that as much as 80 percent of children's dream content is of animals up to the age of about six. It appears through animal dreams children work on the resolution of a variety of issues and fears that they are dealing with in their young lives." Seems to me this is a crock; children's dreams are filled with animals likely because they are surrounded by them via television, movies, books and toys. Naturally they're gonna dream about animals.

Children's toys are often mini-versions of objects and animals in the natural world. The stuffed wild animals like bears are easily controllable within the child's world. Animals become silent, tame, friendly and predictable. The bears don't bite, the dolls don't talk back. The trucks, trains, planes and cars go when and where the child wants. It makes the world less intimidating and allows children the opportunity to practice and articulate their social and mechanical tools. And there certainly seems to be a case for the belief that children better absorb what they're learning through their toys. They are often on their own, out of the spotlight, like a rehearsal. It's also an issue of control. Difference is harnessed.

Animation anthropomorphism takes it a step further by offering kids a chance to see their toys and dolls come to life. But how much do kids really care about what species is used? Does it matter if it's Kipper the dog, kangaroo, owl, squirrel or goat? Unlikely. Kipper has soft colours, round shapes, a friendly trusting voice and demeanour and, like virtually all characters, is predictable. Kipper, Franklin, Rupert, Arthur and Clifford ain't likely to be seen lighting one up, jerking off or firing rounds in the school yard. I can't even recall any wild, out there animal characters beyond say Spongebob or maybe the Tasmanian Devil...but even here they are controlled and pretty tame. Moving, talking animals are an extension of the child's room, and they even speak a recognizable language (remember the kid is often play acting with his toys).

So ok...if it's not necessarily the animal, then what is the attraction beyond form/colour? It appears to be character types. Our attraction to Bugs Bunny, Spongebob, Stimpy or Droopy, etc... are rooted in the recognition of character types. We like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck because of their resemblance to comedians like Groucho Marx, Chaplin, Costello, etc...(of course most of the characters have been Poochieized for modern kids). In recent anthro films like Antz, Bug's Life, Shrek, Monsters and Ice Age, is human form/behaviour even relevant? These characters are entwined with our expectations from the actors voicing them: Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Ray Romano, etc... We approach these characters with expectations. We expect a Woody Allen/Billy Crystal voiced character to be neurotic. The 'animals' are merely extensions of the actor's personas.

Given these influences can we even call it anthropomorphism anymore? The 'animals' are just empty vessels. The core of their being is wrapped up with who is speaking and what is being said.

A Deeper Reason, Of Course

So what is being transmitted and why? Some suggest that anthropomorphism is a way of explaining things that we twits wouldn't normally comprehend, a shortcut that reduces complex formal systems to more user-friendly concepts. The problem with this theory is that shortcuts aren't limited to animals. This is a condition of virtually all of classical narrative animation. All animation is a temporal/spatial shortcut. But while some artists seek the particulars within the universals, most classical narrative films expand particulars to universals. Here we can control the uncontrollable. Time and space are shortened, as are the characters and their relationships. What we do here is order and characterize human beings. We are given universal types. The unique, different and unpredictable are easily categorized and explained.

Because these classical narratives are such a strong part of our daily lives, the fictional starts to ooze into the realm of fact, and even becomes part of our mythology. And myth is when an idea, action, trait, THING becomes something natural in our imagination. Myth follows Eddie Hall's notion of Informal learning, which is often unconscious. Or hey...for you visual folks, watch Chris Landreth's film, Bingo, where a guy named Dave is told his name is Bingo so many times that he starts to believe himself. Informal systems become formal systems. Formal systems are rigid; they push out alternative forms of behaviour. Doubt vanishes. Fear fades. The world is THIS or THAT. Anything else is unacceptable.

Anthropomorphism is about control. The objects around us fascinate us. Trees, animals, flowers are mysterious, beautiful and free. As Aristophanes so presciently noted, rather than just embrace what we share the world with, let what is...be. We have some desire to control everything we do not grasp, to assimilate it. Just take a look at world history and you see centuries of examples. That being said there is a distinct cultural difference between North Americans and the rest of the world. We are surrounded by land that is "large and without mercy." No borders. Restless. Unharnessed. Charles Olson said that, "Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive." Most Americans (not all) sought to pitch tent and take over nature. Again Olson, "We are the last 'first' people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our primary." This time, me: We believe we're in a race. If we don't shoot first, someone will shoot us. We seek to exist above rather than alongside. To ascribe animals and whatever else with human voices and perceived behaviours is not only bizarre, but also arrogant.

Chris Robinson is but a man. His hobbies include squirrel taunting, goat thumping, meat dancing and elderly peeping. You can find the results at http://asifa.net/robinson