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Call of the tame

Cartoons get a 'WF' rating for warm-fuzzy portrayals of animals, Charles Solomon reports. In this disturbing world, there's a universal truth: Man is bad.

October 28, 2003|Charles Solomon

Parental advisory: Disney's "Brother Bear" continues a generations-old distortion of the natural world as upbeat and kind.

Sure, Chip and Dale made Donald Duck's life a waking nightmare, Wile E. Coyote exploded megatons of dynamite in his efforts to nail Road Runner and, yes, ravenous bats did attack the dragonfly messenger in "The Rescuers."

The disillusioning truth, however, is that when it comes to portraying wildlife, cartoons do not always comport with reality. Yet, they are so influential that when the president of the Sedona, Ariz., Chamber of Commerce drives through the desert in her convertible, she sometimes finds herself blurting: "Beep-beep."

Speaking from her office on (appropriately enough) Road Runner Road, Chicago native Char Beltran says that long before she ever saw the rocks of Sedona, animated cartoons had chiseled impressions of the landscape into her mind. And while she may not admit it, she, like many tourists, probably finds the landscape curiously dull without coyotes propelled by Acme jet skates careening off cliffs.

Evidence of animation's fantasy power resurfaces every so often. After this year's release of the animated feature "Finding Nemo," children nationwide reportedly liberated their pet fish by flushing them down toilets, and at the peak of Yogi and Boo Boo's "pic-a-nic"-disrupting rampage through Jellystone Park, more than one Yellowstone tourist is said to have smeared honey on a kid's face to get his snapshot with a hungry, lovable bear. Even today, visitors to Yellowstone rib park officials with cracks of "Where's Ranger Smith?" and "Where's the picnic basket?" says Cheryl Smith, Yellowstone's deputy chief of public affairs.

Shortly before his death in 1990, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales," opined that cartoons "give children the material ... to fantasize and escape from the humdrum of their everyday existence, which isn't always a very happy one, to a fantasy land that is happier for them."

Yet Bettelheim saw value in earlier children's fantasies, such as the Grimm brothers' tales, which offer far darker views of the wild kingdom than do today's sanitized features. The latter tend to portray nature as anemic, at best -- pink in tooth and claw.

Example: Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is a series of sometimes unsettling yarns featuring no-nonsense carnivores, from the human, Mowgli, to Kaa, a python that devours monkeys by the dozen. But in the 1967 animated feature, predatory instincts made way for showbiz, with Baloo the bear, panther Bagheera and Kaa singing, clowning and dancing across the friendly landscape. At one point in the movie's creation, renowned animator Milt Kahl grumbled, "We could call the picture 'The Call of the Tame.' "

Likewise, in the 1999 movie "Tarzan," the ape man slays a leopard that has attacked his ape family -- but he doesn't hunt animals for food or clothing, apparently finding all the loincloths he needs at the Serengeti Mall.

And though "The Lion King" (1994) offers a well-observed vision of African wildlife, Simba grows into an adult lion on a crash diet, eschewing writhing gazelles for bugs and grubs.

Likewise, the scene in which thousands of stampeding wildebeests trample Simba's father worried filmmakers, who thought it might prove too powerful. "There was a great deal of arguing over whether the image of the dead Mufasa was too dramatic for the animated medium, whether the audience should see the body, whether it would be too much for the viewers, even though there wasn't any blood," says Andreas Deja, one of the movie's animators. "They finally decided that the audience had to see Mufasa's body for his death to have the necessary impact."

Other animated films have portrayed animals as truly beastly: The attack of the enraged grizzly in 1981's "The Fox and the Hound" enlivens an otherwise dull film, and Belle's flight in "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) from a pack of wolves in a snowy forest scared more than one child. But generally cartoons turn hostile only when a character enters the outdoors to hunt, camp or picnic -- think hordes of ants carrying off Donald Duck's lunch and Spike the bee dive-bombing his plump rear end. Even Elmer Fudd, who is forever admonishing the audience, "Be ve-wy, ve-wy quiet: I'm hunting wabbits!" is invariably humiliated by Bugs Bunny.

The tradition of using animals to expose human excess and folly dates back at least to Aesop and Aristophanes. It's a distancing mechanism that allows for exaggeration: No human could stiffen and fall end over end, the way Flower the skunk does when he's kissed for the first time in 1942's "Bambi," and the tantrums Donald throws when Chip and Dale outfox him eclipse even the fits tossed by pro basketball and football coaches.

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