14. Princess Mononoke (orig. Mononoke-hime, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
A gifted warrior of a small village is stricken by a horrible curse while defending his family and friends from an attack from a contaminated wild boar, and his only salvation requires him to set out into the depths of the woods and look for the Spirit of the Forest, a creature that is always in shape shift.
As he arrives there, his arm being consumed by the disease and bringing him pain, he finds that there is a war being waged by human forces against the forest, and as he tries to establish diplomacy between the two sides, his trust fades away with both.
This beautiful animation, directed by possibly the greatest Japanese name in the genre, brings forth a series of inspiring questions about our relationship to the world around us. Is it enough not to interfere? Would it be positive for both humanity and nature if the former understood the isolated relevance of the beings that compose the principle of the latter?
What spheres of existential notions can we gather from the presence of a human as being the princess of all the beasts in the forest, and taking up arms to defend them against her equals? The war between humans and the mythical beasts of Japanese folklore portrayed in this film stands out not only as a wonderful artistic achievement, but also as a filmic rendition of cultural particularities as regards animal personifications and symbolic meanings thereof.
15. The Cat Returns (orig. Neko no Ongaeshi, Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)
Another Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli, and another rather surreal one. The little girl Haru, who lives a simple life of studying and returning home day after day, finds herself trapped in a vortex of illusion as cats start walking down the street on two legs before her eyes.
After saving a little kitten from being run over by a car, she is invited by a distinctive and posh one named simply as Baron, who is returning the favour in the form of a visit to the kingdom of the cats. Haru’s dreamworld is somewhat materialised.
As she visits the kingdom, the vertiginous locales and the uncanny customs of its inhabitants amazes her, for better or worse. What follows is a fast-paced adventure for her to avoid an arranged wedding with the prince, something which would forever keep her in that alternate reality. She tries to escape, sometimes lying to herself in thinking that the cats are not so obsessive about her.
Although the film does not externalise any profound meaning behind this, one may infer that the cats have always wanted to bring humans closer to their realm to be blended in, an interpretation shallow enough, but whose motivations can offer food for thought once such an interpretation is applied to the real world.
16. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Herzog braves the world of documentary with Grizzly Man; not that he had not done it before. This time it is quite singular: the film is a take on the hardships of animal rights activists who have dedicated their lives to preserving grizzly bears. But love and death walk hand-in-hand in this factual narrative, as the couple depicted in the story (Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard) are killed by a rogue bear while out in Alaska for their customary research.
The drive that the couple had in enduring such a difficult cause, something that is shown in the film, makes it a much more gruesome and dramatic event to ponder about. Herzog plays amazingly with the order of the events depicted, and the fact that he had listened to the audio that had Timothy and Amie’s last moments adds up to that drama.
An all too dangerous job, and a sad end to it, are a testament to the couple’s efforts in protecting endangered species, and can pay homage to the millions that have also stood up for other species and perished while in the struggle.
17. The Kautokeino Rebellion (orig. Kautokeino-opprøret, Nils Gaup, 2008)
This neat and simplistic production speaks for the agonies of oppressed people. The film portrays the lives of Sami villagers who are struggling to win a pretty much lost battle against Norwegian authorities in 1852.
The latter’s intentions are merely political, and while the social stigmas – like alcoholism – deeply affect family structures, there is no interest from these very authorities in aiding the communities. Violence and anguish arise in Kautokeino as the villagers revolt against Norwegian bureaucratic representatives. The rebellion did take place, you see, and it was far bloodier than the film represents. But that is not the point.
Amidst all this commotion, it is impossible not to notice the constant presence of reindeer herds in the landscape. The camera makes sure that the viewer sees it every time the Sami are tending to their herding.
The animals run around in circles and form beautiful images, and the people make sure their reindeers are always healthy and that, more than anything, there are enough people to tend to them. The symbiosis may not be egalitarian, but it is in the honest portrayal of the very dependence of the Sami people upon these animals that one sees the visceral authenticity of that landscape.
18. War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
From a little farm in Devon, England, hails Albert Narracott, a vivid young man that has fallen in love for his new horse, a strongly built Thoroughbred. As the horse matures, he does so with him, and it is needless to say that the bonding process is quickly captured by the film.
However, the family is going through dire straits, and in order to keep going with the farm problems, the father has to sell the beast. Albert is completely heartbroken, and upon learning about the possibility of finding his horse being ridden by a soldier in the First World War, he promptly enlists and departs.
The horse goes to war and so does Albert. The theatre of war is in the background, as the relationship between the many soldiers and the animal are as diverse as the continuity of the film. The horse goes through battle after battle, and this strong animal-epic finds the reconciliation between the boy and the horse through the symbolism of friendship as a solution to belligerent bloodshed.
19. Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)
An acclaimed and awarded film with a little aesthetic touch of fantasy, but with a concrete plotline all the same. Again, a pair man-animal is developed in the narrative; this time a castaway boy (Pi Patel) and a tiger (Richard Parker). They are on board of a little boat after a ship sinks, and Pi has to control a group of animals so that they do not enrage themselves enough to let their nature do the killing. The relationship between him and Richard Parker is in constant transformation, from a docile treatment to utter hostility.
The days pass and survival becomes both the danger in their relationship, and the element they need to achieve by staying together. Pi’s raft breaks, his supply organisation being wasted indefinitely, and their friendship flourishes in face of constant dangers. They eventually reach land, and when Richard Parker leaves Pi to delve into the wild jungle, leaving the boy devastated.
The stories that he tries to tell insurance agents from the ship do not convince them, and the feeling left towards the end of the film is that there was an intimate loss of something very dear that will never have any significant meaning for anybody but Pi himself.
20. Bestiaire (Denis Cotê, 2012)
This French-Canadian documentary is a visual trip through the common feelings and stereotyped behaviour of animals living in captivity. From bulls to horses, llamas, camels, zebras and giraffes, the film presents a disturbingly silent narrative from beginning to end.
There are no human voices uttering any command or anything at all. We can only hear the animal’s cries and moans. And the sounds of machines being manipulated by employees of the place that, for some undisclosed reason, tidy the place up during a snowy day.
With time, the viewer begins realising what sort of setting the director wanted to depict. Cages are frequently in the frame, and people wash corridors as zebras bump into one another in confusion. A taxidermist skilfully – and coldly – stuffs the body of a duck, as we are left with the sensation that a piece of art was in question, not the still corpse of a bird. The ambiance goes through a transition to more expansive locations, and the realisation that the place is a zoo springs to mind.
Now the animals do not walk on concrete in narrow greyish halls; they tread across green pastures as the snow has melted and the visitation time of the year has started. Cars flock to witness the exotic beasts in their “natural” behaviour, and children loudly walk by frightened deer fawns. The human presence is unavoidable.
Author Bio: George is a PhD student on Comparative Studies of Cinema and Literature. He is in deep love with post-apocalyptic films from the Cold War era, and has special affection for Gothic fiction as well. George loves writing short stories, painting, and playing some RPG.