There is an old rule in Hollywood: the dog has to live. You can kill hundreds of people in a movie and splatter the screen with human blood, and the audience won't mind. But get one cute little pooch caught in the crossfire, and it will leave a bad taste in the viewer's mouth (2011's "Seven Psychopaths" contains a great meta riff on this idea).
In recent years, filmmakers have gone a step further. Animal rights issues are increasingly taking hold with the public, and Hollywood is following suit. In 2012, there was "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which was practically an animal rights manifesto. The box-office hit ($176 million domestically) featured as its protagonist a chimpanzee who leads a rebellion against humans. Most notably, the film featured a cathartic sequence of animal liberation, in which animals from labs and zoos are set free. Last year, there was the better-than-expected "Big Miracle," which told the true story of a family of whales trapped under ice in the Arctic Circle and the various industries and non-profits who came together to save them. Of course, there has been a slew of recent documentaries – from "The Cove" to "Project Nim" to "Blackfish" – that have effectively raised the level of debate about our responsibility to animals.
But this concern for animals in film is not a new development; it is just becoming more prevalent. Twenty years ago, "Free Willy," a movie that was also built on the notion of animal liberation, was a surprise hit, spawning two sequels and lots of merchandise sales. And you could also make a case that every kids' movie featuring an animated animal character is moving the needle on these issues by encouraging kids to see them as sentient beings. Once you start noticing these issues in movies, you will be amazed at how often caring about animals is used in film to signify personal growth, compassion, and kindness.
Regardless of whether or not the pro-animal message is made explicit, the underlying values of a film do make an impact on the audience. If you are an animal person, revisiting some of these older movies may provide a clue as to how they came to care about animals so much. Here are a few movies from your past that concern themselves with the exploitation of animals – even though they rarely get credit for it:
5. "Seven Pounds"
I think there is a statute of limitations on spoilers, but if you haven't seen this one, you may want to skip to the next entry. In "Seven Pounds," Will Smith plays Ben, a mysterious man-with-a-past who claims to be an IRS agent while collecting information on a list of people he carries. We soon learn what Ben is really up to: after killing seven people in a car accident (he was texting and driving), he plans to atone by committing suicide and having his organs delivered to people who need them. But first he has to make sure that the people who will receive his organs are worthy of them. To this end, he befriends a blind piano player (Woody Harrelson) and a beautiful woman with a bad heart (Rosario Dawson) who are on his list of prospects.
But here is the rub: the film characterizes these two as "worthy" by making them both animal lovers. Harrelson's character is a blind vegetarian who is forced to take a job as a steak salesman to make ends meet. Dawson's character is not only vegetarian but even feeds her Great Dane a meat-free diet and is furious when Ben "treats" him to a steak. These two characters are depicted as ideal humans: kind, generous, and compassionate. There is a beautiful, almost biblical sense of justice in Ben's final actions: only those who respect the bodies of others are worthy of receiving the fruits of Ben's corporeal sacrifice.
4. "12 Monkeys"
One of the great Terry Gilliam films, "12 Monkeys" features a character who is a serious animal rights activist – but we don't know it until the final reel. Bruce Willis plays a prisoner sent back to the past to find the cause of the viral outbreak that drove mankind underground. He thinks he is onto something when he runs into Jeffrey (Brad Pitt, in an outstanding, maniacal performance), a rich scientist's son who runs an anarchist group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. But eventually, the truth emerges: Jeffrey runs one of those "extremist" animal rights groups, and his plan is not to infect the world's population with a deadly virus – only to liberate a bunch of wild animals from the city's zoo. The film hardly paints animal rights activists in the most positive light, but the final sequence of animals running through the city streets is surrealistically cathartic.
4. City Slickers
This one is all about Norman, the calf that Mitch (Billy Crystal) helps birth on his cattle drive vacation with his friends. As a depressed urbanite approaching middle age, Mitch finds his smile through protecting Norman from certain death. But the way that the film depicts his transformation offers a startlingly clear message: animals are not meant to be eaten.
After their leader, Curly (Jack Palance), croaks in the desert, Mitch and his two buddies (Daniel Stern and the late Bruno Kirby) end up driving nearly a thousand head of cattle to their destination on their own. It is a long, dangerous trip, and Mitch nearly dies saving Norman from some dangerous rapids. When they arrive at the ranch, they are celebrated for their courage, but their joy quickly fades as they learn that the cattle they protected are being sent to slaughter. "It's not like they have a lot to live for," the rancher tells them. "It's what they were bred for."
We know that such an argument can be persuasive to people, but Mitch is not convinced. Later that night, he is watching the cows and pondering their fate, when he and Norman share a moment. Something is communicated between them – we don't know quite what – and Mitch decides to buy him and raise him as a pet.
The big picture isn't entirely positive; Mitch only saves the one cow (the rest are presumably slaughtered), and I'd rather not debate the merits of raising a cow in the suburbs of New York (as depicted in the sequel). But what's notable here is that Mitch's journey to self-actualization – to finding his smile – came from saving a cow from being slaughtered for beef. In 1992, that was a rare and radical idea indeed.
2. Doc Hollywood
When it comes to his movie career, Michael J. Fox will likely be remembered for a single role: Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies. But for a little while there, he had a nice run of modestly successful movies that have been relegated to the dustbin of history, i.e. the Starz network. One such movie is "Doc Hollywood," which finds Fox playing Ben Stone, a young plastic surgeon who gets sidetracked on his way to L.A. when his car crashes in rural Georgia. Stuck until the auto parts arrive, Stone takes care of the sick folk in town, while wooing a young, beautiful ambulance driver named Lou (Julie Warner).
It's actually a pretty good movie, so good in fact that Pixar stole virtually the entire story for "Cars" (seriously, compare them side-by-side). But the core storyline is Ben's pursuit of Lou, and he quickly learns that he needs to become an animal person to do it. Lou is a vegetarian, and, in order to be more sympathetic, Ben becomes vegetarian, too. Through an odd twist, he also comes to own a pig, although he promptly trades to the auto mechanic working on his car. When he finds out that the mechanic has sold the pig to the butcher, Ben rushes to save her from slaughter. For the rest of the movie, the pig is Ben's loyal sidekick – and a symbol of his maturation from greedy, money-driven plastic surgeon to kind, compassionate small-time doc.
Animal activists will particularly enjoy the performance of Woody Harrelson, who plays a rough-and-tumble rival suitor for Lou's affection and gets to utter the line: "I don't know if I trust a man who doesn't eat meat." Of course, Harrelson is a real-life vegan, which makes this some kind of reverse type-casting.
Most amazingly, "Doc Hollywood" does not stop at vegetarianism, for Lou is no small-time animal rights activist. She not only avoids meat on her dinner plate but also engages in one of the most controversial and risky animal rights tactics available: hunt sabotage. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Lou spots a popular hunting area and decides to scare the deer off in an unusual way. No telling if this tactic actually works or not, but it's something to keep in mind:
1. "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde"
This sequel to the uber-successful "Legally Blonde" was a major disappointment. It under-performed at the box office and was received positively by only 38% of critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes. But if you could see past the shoddy production values, predictable screenplay, and complete lack of a reason to exist, you will find a film built on a startling strong message of compassion towards animals.
Reese Witherspoon once again plays Elle, an resolute, nearly pathological optimist who can achieve great things with only a smile, a little pluck, and a great fashion sense. In the first movie, she conquered Harvard, but in the sequel she tries to crack a much tougher nut: Congress.
It starts with an engagement. Elle is getting married, and she insists on inviting the parents of her dog Bruiser (an adorable Chihuahua, who might be the best actor in the film) to the wedding. After hiring a private investigator to find them, she learns that Bruiser's mother is owned by a lab and used for cosmetics testing. After being fired from her law firm, she calls on her old sorority connections and takes a job as a Congressional Fellow with Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field).
Her only task is to write a bill banning the use of animals in cosmetics testing and move it through the truly-tough Energy and Commerce Committee. Amazingly, the film is fairly accurate about the process of trying to pass animal protection laws in Congress, and arguments in favor of these laws get lots of valuable screen time. At various times over the course of the film, Elle points out that:
1) Animals don't react to cosmetics the way humans do.
2) We need to invest in alternative technologies, which are usually more cost-effective.
3) If we would not subject our own dogs to these tests, it is wrong to subject other animals to them.
The filmmakers clearly did their research, as the film accurately portrays the ins and outs of working on the Hill. When Elle hits a dead end with the committee, she stages an accidental meeting with the committee chair at a hair salon. These personal connections are crucial to getting the attention of Congress; it's why lobbyists hang out at Capitol Hill bars so much. When a last-minute double-cross by Congresswoman Rudd leaves the bill to die in committee, Elle and her staff use a little-known but real technique known as a "discharge petition" to circumvent the committee and bring the bill directly to the House floor for a vote.
This attention to detail doesn't make "Legally Blonde 2" a better film, but it does serve the film's only real value: wish-fulfillment for animal activists. They will catch details like the copy of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" on Elle's desk and the sinister portrayal of a National Institutes of Health rep at a committee hearing. They will enjoy the depiction of a Million Dog March on the Mall, an idea I always thought would work if all the animal protection groups could work together. Lastly, they will be moved by the final scene when Bruiser is reunited with his mother, and they romp together like old friends. They might even cry a tear or two. Not that I did (sniff, sniff).