Our first list of movies to catch up with while coping with self-isolation was about meta-cinema. In our second offering, we look at 15 fictional and non-fiction films about animals (we’re not including nature documentaries typically shown on television or streaming platforms). These titles feature our furry friends and foes in inventive ways. There are cuddly dogs, imperious cats, crying camels, animated sheep and at least one elephant with murder on its mind.
(Why no films about cows, you may ask? Worry not: we have a separate list coming up on movies from Bovine-wood).
Streaming on a screen very close to you
Cinematographer Santosh Sivan made his directorial debut with the children’s film Halo, about a young girl who goes to great lengths to find her missing pooch. It’s hard to decide who is cuter – Benaf Dadachandji as seven-year-old Sasha, her puppy Halo, or Sasha’s baldie friend (Bulang Raja). Sharetth’s music and Sivan’s rich cinematography, which captures Mumbai’s monsoon moods, are bonuses.
Where to watch: On the Ultra Kids YouTube channel.
The death of a pet can be heartbreaking. Trust Tim Burton to add doses of horror and humour to the situation. In Frankenweenie, Burton’s signature Gothic-influenced aesthetic and cock-eyed worldview are at the service of the story of the young inventor Victor, who accidentally resurrects his dead dog Sparky. Viktor is soon inundated by requests to revive the neighbourhood’s deceased pets – only, they turn out to be monsters.
Where to watch: YouTube Movies, Google Play.
The title of Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary translates into “Cats”, and cats are what we get. Kedi explores the free-roaming felines of Istanbul, who are as beautiful as they are ubiquitous. Torun picks seven cats, each of whom has names and distinctive personalities. They include the neighbourhood terror Psycho and the very proper Duman. Apart from highlighting the deep love between the humans of Istanbul and their furball friends, the documentary doubles up as a tribute to a magnificent city that is out of bounds at the moment, like much of the world.
Where to watch: YouTube Premium.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
This spin-off from the British television series is an excellent mood-lifter for the self-quarantining era and beyond. Nick Park’s creations (they include the Wallace & Gromit shorts and Chicken Run) spin on droll humour and stop-motion clay animation, which bring a wonderfully tactile quality to the figures. In Shaun the Sheep Movie, the farmer who runs Mossy Bottom in rural Britain loses his memory and lands up in London. The heroic sheep Shaun and his flock follow in pursuit, as does the dog Bitzer. The dialogue is minimal (grunts and bleats, mostly) and sight gags abound.
Where to watch: Netflix.
Fantastic Mr Fox
Wes Anderson’s singular vision is especially well-suited to animation. In Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), loosely based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, Anderson uses stop-motion animation, miniaturised sets and wry humour for the story of the thieving fox (voiced by George Clooney), his brood, and his sorties against his farmer neighbours.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.
This talking-animals movie has the right combination of tweeness and cleverness. It’s not quite what you might expect from George Miller, the director of the dystopian Mad Max films – but then he did also direct the animated musical Happy Feet. Babe is based on British author Dick King-Smith’s 1983 children’s book The Sheep-Pig, and is about a piglet whose endearing ways save him from being served up a Christmas treat. The animals, which include an adorable border collie family, were both real as well as computer-generated.
Where to watch: on YouTube Movies, Google Play.
Tyke Elephant Outlaw
This documentary is for those who believe that wild animals can and should be trained to perform in circuses. Tyke Elephant Outlaw, directed by Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore, revisits the events of August 20, 1994, in Honolulu, when the circus elephant Tyke trampled her trainer to death and ran around the city before being killed. Tyke had 87 bullets in her body and a tear streaming down her face, according to one of the men who cleared her corpse.
Ample footage from the incident, both of Tyke’s rampage in the ring and in the city, make the 78-minute documentary a harrowing watch. Interviews with circus trainers on how animals, especially elephants, are trained, are equally difficult to sit through. The elephants were chained for 22 hours a day, and Tyke had already begun rebelling before she lost control. A circus is no place for an animal, wild or domesticated, and the documentary makes this point with clarity and compassion.
Where to watch: Netflix.
Frank Marshall’s film, a remake of the Japanese blockbuster Antarctica (1983), adheres firmly to the “four legs better” principle. An eight-member dog sled team attached to a group of researchers in Antarctica is left behind after a snowstorm. Six months later, a member of the team (Paul Walker) returns to look for the good boys and girls. All the canines are excellent performers, and their gorgeous selves are showcased in loving close-ups.
Where to watch: YouTube Movies.
Not available on Indian streamers, but seek and you shall find
The snow-coloured German Shepherd in Samuel Fuller’s provocative and yet compassionate parable about racism and murderous bigotry is no cuddly critter. The dog has been trained by his previous handler to attack and kill black people, and his new owner learns this the hard way. Not for the politically correct or the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those who believe that all dogs are bundles of affection and loyalty.
Not a typo: Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s 2014 allegory explores migration and Europe’s treatment of outsiders through the travails of a mixed-breed dog. Separated from his loving teenage owner, the dog become a stray, a captive, and eventually the leader of a pack of feral canines who burst out into the open, seeking their version of justice. The sequence in which the dogs run down a deserted street is terrifying as well as a filming feat.
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Hardcore canine lovers might yelp at some of the scenes in this Korean black comedy – its tolerance patience for toy dogs is especially low – but their patience will eventually be rewarded. An unemployed professor decided to do something quite horrible when the yapping of a shih tzu in his housing complex becomes unbearable. Recrimination follows in the form of an animal-loving janitor and her tough friend. To make matters worse, the professor’s pregnant wife brings home a poodle.
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s directorial debut from 2000 contains the elements that led up the record-breaking Oscar haul: twisted humour, ordinary characters resorting to desperate measures to get by, and a fluid storytelling style marked by quick mood shifts, bravura camerawork, and perfectly pitched performances.
Harry and Tonto
In Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), the elderly Harry sets out on a road trip with his adorable cat Tonto. As Harry hitchhikes his way across America, he meets old friends and new, his faithful orange tabby by his side. Art Carney won the Oscar for his performance as Harry, and Tonto (actually played by three cats) surely shared some of the glory.
The Story of the Weeping Camel
The backdrop for this Mongolian film about the enduring bond between humans and livestock is the magnificent Gobi desert. The dramatis personae include nomadic shepherds, musicians, and a bunch of camels. When a newborn camel calf is rejected by its mother, the shepherds spring into action to ensure that peace in the family is restored. Bordering on the edge between fiction and ethnographic documentary, The Story of the Weeping Camel has the flavour of a folk tale and the charm of a fairy tale.
Lean on Pete
Computer-generated animals have mostly replaced real ones – prompted, in large part, by concerns over their training and treatment. The equine star in Andrew Haigh’s moving Lean on Pete is very real indeed – his name is Starsky. Charley (Charlie Plummer) steals Lean on Pete, an ailing racehorse, and set outs without a plan. Lean on Pete unsentimentally brings out the anguish of boy and animal, both of whom have been pushed to the margins by a world that has barely any use for them.
In Disney’s hilarious animated film, directed by Chris Howard and Byron Howard, there’s a cynical stray cat, a deluded dog and a television-addicted domesticated hamster. Bolt thinks he is a “superdog” defending his owner Penny from evil, but he’s actually a character in a long-running television series. Wisdom dawns when Bolt gets separated from Penny and tries to get back to her. Mittens, a free-roaming feline, is forced to go along, but the hamster Rhino who is an ardent Bolt admirer, is a willing accomplice.