Everyone loves movies! And lots of people also love animals. So, it may not be a surprise that movies and animals combined are usually pretty popular. There are so very many examples of amazing movies featuring and also focusing on animals. And as an animal professional, I thought it would be a lot of fun to discuss some of my all-time favorites. Now, there are almost too many to choose from, so I had to come up with some sort of criteria to help myself narrow it down. I was actually kind of proud of myself for deciding on ten of my all-time favorites. But let’s go over some rules first… Criteria for Selection:
First of all, there are so many choices that (as I have already stated) I just had to narrow it down somehow, so right of the bat—these movies must be live-action films in order to qualify. So, as much as I love a good animated feature, movies such as The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and The Secret of NIMH are not candidates for this list. This actually helped a lot in whittling down my choices. Secondly, the movies in the ranks must be primarily about animals. There are hundreds if not thousands of films showing animals of course, but I wanted these movies (and their plot lines) to focus directly on the animals themselves. So, though they are amazing films, Whale Rider, Dances With Wolves, and The Edge did not qualify. Next, I figured I would only put up films for consideration if they primarily featured real life animal “actors” (if you will.) Special effects are of course allowed to a certain degree, however, the films chosen must have real life animals as the main stars in the end product. For example, the films Life of Pi, Jaws, or even the classic Jurassic Park movies were not appropriate for this list. Furthermore, any movies selected for this ranking must be about real animals (and not fantasy animals) therefore, The NeverEnding Story, Star Wars, and King Kong were not allowed. And lastly, these films selected must not be a documentary, as to narrow it down even further. So, no March of the Penguins, The Biggest Little Farm, or Winged Migration, etc.
Animal Cruelty in Movie Making:
Another consideration I took on was something that is very important to me, and to most animal enthusiasts as well. This is the subject of animal cruelty within the film industry. Unfortunately, (though laws are set in place now to regulate this) it used to be commonplace for animals to become harmed or even killed in the filmmaking process. Films such as Milo and Otis, and Ben-Hur are a couple of examples of well-received and acclaimed films, with dark secrets. Both of these movies unfortunately used animals with little regard to their well-being or safety, as opposed to working with animals in an appropriate and humane manner in order to achieve the end product the filmmakers wanted.
It should go without saying that none of these such films that are known to have put their animal actors through cruel experiences (some even causing animals to die) would qualify for this list as well. I absolutely do not condone such practices and do not want to support films that were made in this way whatsoever. As an animal trainer, I am disgusted that animals would be used without proper regulation in order for a film to be made. But it is important that we are aware of the past, so that we can from this point on proceed with better methods. It may take more work to do something the appropriate way, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. And now, thankfully, laws and regulations are set in place to protect animals from cruelty in the movie making process.
The Main Event:
Now, with all these rules in mind, I would like to discuss my top ten favorite live-action animal-focused films (featuring real-life animal actors) of all time, (and in order!!) So, without further ado, here is my personal ranking, along with a brief exploration of each film, as well as an explanation of why they are my all-time favorites. And by the way, no spoilers! Please enjoy:
Number 10 – The Bear:
In 1988, a very unique French film called The Bear was made. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, this film is presented in the form of a kind of “pseudo-documentary,” and has a very real feel to it. Additionally, the movie has minimal dialogue, and is all about a small orphaned bear cub, and his adventures in the wilderness. And though it does briefly feature some human actors, the story focuses almost exclusively on the animals themselves. No talking animals required either, due to the phenomenal writing and storytelling this film provides. I love this movie for many reasons, but mostly because of how unique it is. Though there happens to be very little spoken words throughout, there is never a point in the film where I am not captivated by what is on screen. Whether it be the nail-biting adventures the main characters face, or the breath-taking scenery the cinematography captures, this film absolutely delivers from beginning to end. Though it does have some frightening depictions, and themes of loss, this is also a film for the whole family, and definitely a classic. I believe anyone who loves animals or nature can enjoy this film, and it still holds up incredibly to this day.
Number 9 – Mouse Hunt:
Not all animal-centered movies are serious. In fact, some are downright hilarious! One such film is 1997’s Mouse Hunt, directed by Gore Verbinski, (most famous for The Pirates of the Caribbean series) and starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans. It depicts two brothers who become caught up in a crazy, desperate situation that gets worse and more complicated as the story goes on. And the character of the mouse (who complicates their lives even further) is portrayed by the use of some special effects work, but primarily with the use of incredibly well-trained real-life mouse actors! If you want to laugh out loud, and enjoy a truly adorable mouse, please feel free to sit down and watch this feel-good flick. I adore this movie for its homages to a cartoon-like hilarity, and slapstick physical comedic efforts. However, this film also has a lot of heart, great character development, and a wonderful underlying message. You’re sure to laugh ‘til you cry with this one. And also, who doesn’t love a cute animal side-kick?!
Number 8 – Never Cry Wolf:
Some animal films are inspirational, some make you stop and think, and some are even based on a true story. Never Cry Wolf absolutely accomplishes all three of these in one. In 1983, Carroll Ballard directed this jaw-dropping cinematic masterpiece, based on the true story and autobiographical novel by the renowned environmentalist Farley Mowat. The main character, played by Charles Martin Smith, is assigned by the government to study wolves in the wild, and what he discovers is much more than what he signed up for. And through witnessing the experiences and changes he goes through, we as an audience also discover something we did not expect. This awe-inspiring movie depicts the great northern wilderness, and the animals that call it home in an incredibly eye-opening, and heartfelt way. Furthermore, it reminds us of the profound impact we have on other people, animals, and the environment which we all share. I love this film, because it not only commands the audience’s full attention while watching it unfold on screen, but asks us to look within ourselves to become the better change we would like to see in the world. If you have not seen Never Cry Wolf, please do yourself a favor and take the time to experience it.
Number 7 – Duma:
Duma is a wonderful uplifting film for all ages. This movie was released in 2005, was directed by Carroll Ballard, and stars Alex Michaeletos and Eamonn Walker. It tells the story of a boy, his cheetah friend, and their numerous adventures. Due to the African setting, there are also many other gorgeous and amazing animal species to experience throughout this movie, all of which are portrayed beautifully and very accurately. The plotline and relationship development alone will keep your attention, and surely have you smiling from beginning to end. Additionally, the underlying messages the story teaches its viewers are as thought-provoking as they are heartwarming. This is a film for those of us who understand the meaning of true friendship, and for anyone who enjoys wildlife, and the beauty of nature. Duma is definitely worth your time, and is best enjoyed with your family or very best friend by your side.
Number 6 – Paulie:
Though my next choice (at first glance) is just a children’s comedy (and certainly was advertised as such) it is, in my opinion, far more than that at heart. 1998’s Paulie is a film directed by John Roberts, and starring talented actors such as Jay Mohr, Tony Shalhoub, Haillie Eisenberg, Cheech Marin, and many more. In this film, we follow the main character (a talking parrot named Paulie) as he goes on a lifelong adventure to find his best (human) friend, Marie. You may be wondering why this particular movie is placed so high on my list, or why it is even in the ranking at all. Paulie is one of my all-time favorite “ugly cry” movies… maybe ever. Yes, the main protagonist is a talking parrot, and yes, this movie has its silly moments, but it is absolutely incredibly heartfelt, and downright moving at its core. The various experiences the characters go through will both break your heart and lift you up. Additionally, the journey that Paulie goes on to find his long-lost companion, and the many lives of the people he touches along the way will make you fall in love. And if you have ever lost someone and been reunited, you are sure to relate. Bring the whole family, along with some tissues, and get ready to laugh, cry, and cheer while you watch this one. Give it a chance. I promise you, it’s not what you think.
Number 5 – Black Beauty:
Based on the classic novel by Anna Sewell, Black Beauty is famously told from the perspective of the main character, Beauty the horse. This wonderful adaptation was directed by Caroline Thompson and was released in 1994. It stars Alan Cumming (as the voice of Beauty) David Thewlis, Sean Bean, and many more. What is unique about this movie, is it isn’t really considered to be a “talking animal” film, but rather is narrated throughout by the inner thoughts of our main protagonist, which happens to be a horse. What is also special about this story in general (the novel included) is the idea that animals have feelings, and should be treated with respect and not as just as property. This may sound obvious to us in modern day, but when the novel was originally published in 1877, this was viewed by some as an outrageous outlook. In fact, it is one of the first stories written with animal welfare as a strong theme. The film is equally as powerful, and has a lot to say about the well-being and treatment of animals, (without having an extremist animal rights undertone.) Additionally, this movie is one of the absolute best examples of the accomplishments that can be achieved with horse training. Fair warning: Black Beauty is another story that will likely make any animal lover cry tears of joy and tears of sorrow, so make sure to bring the tissues.
Number 4 – The Ghost and the Darkness:
This next film is the only one on the list in which the animals in the story are the main antagonists, and it is the only scary film included as well. However, it is (in my personal opinion) one of the best movies about animals ever made. 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness was directed by Stephen Hopkins, and stars Michael Douglas, and Val Kilmer as our main character, John Patterson. John is a European bridge builder, working in Africa who encounters a very serious problem with the local wildlife, specifically with two rogue male lions who have become man eaters. Through incredible animal training, and academy award winning special effects, this heart-stopping film vividly captures the real danger people have actually dealt with when encountering large predatory animals in the wild. It will absolutely grip you from beginning to end. And what is most incredible—is that this is a true story. In fact, the actual lions portrayed in this film are now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago! Feel free to watch The Ghost and the Darkness (if you dare) but please do not include any children as this film is definitely not family-friendly, due to realistic frightening subject matter.
Number 3 – Fly Away Home:
If you haven’t figured it out by now, director Carroll Ballard’s specialty is making amazing movies about nature and animals. In 1996, he directed a movie based on an incredible true story about a girl, her dad, and a flock of geese. This movie is titled Fly Away Home, and stars Ana Paquin and Jeff Daniels. To be very honest, the entire plot is quite simple, but so well told within this movie that it is an absolute must-see. The relationship that develops between the daughter and father all because of some orphaned Canada geese is both wildly entertaining, and utterly heartwarming. I absolutely love how the birds and their care are portrayed, as well as the statements this movie makes regarding whether or not to allow birds to fly. This film is also widely underknown for whatever reason, but undeservedly so. Another film for the entire family; this feel-good movie is sure to make your soul soar.
Number 2 – The Black Stallion:
If you haven’t yet seen the classic film, The Black Stallion, you are missing out on an absolute treasure of cinema. This is an adventure story with a huge heart, and is all about a young boy named Alec, and his relationship with a magnificent stallion named, The Black. This movie is directed by none other than, you guessed it, Carroll Ballard (and this was actually his very first film!) It was released in 1979, and stars Kelly Reno, Teri Garr, and Mickey Rooney. The dialogue is minimal but perfectly written, the acting is phenomenal, the musical score is awe-inspiring, and the achievement in animal training is breathtaking. I could honestly go on and on. Additionally, the underlying themes of kindness, patience, endurance, and loyalty are also worth noting. It is also very difficult to think of any film that depicts the true beauty and elegance of animals as well as The Black Stallion does. Movies featuring horses honestly don’t get any better than this. Of course, this movie comes with my highest recommendation, as it truly has something for everyone. Take the time to see this one; you will not be sorry you did.
Number 1 – Babe:
In 1995, a movie was released in theaters all about a little farm pig who was raised by sheep dogs, and because of this, wasn’t really sure where he belonged. He was aware that he was a pig, but did that mean that he couldn’t accomplish what he dreamed? He even questioned whether or not he should stay in his place and be thankful for who and what he was, or try to hope for more. All and all, through his trials and errors in life, he realized that with patience, kindness, honesty, and believing in himself, he could indeed accomplish anything, no matter who or what he was. That movie, of course is Babe, directed by Chris Noonan, and it is based on the novel, The Sheep-Pig by author Dick King-Smith. It stars the talents of James Cromwell, Christine Cavanaugh, and many more.
This is a talking animal movie. This is a family movie. And it happens to be my favorite of all the movies depicting real-life animals… ever. The accomplishments achieved in this film still hold up to this day, due to top-notch direction, incredible storytelling, and overall skillful execution. Though there is of course a wide usage of special effects, the majority of the animals shown in the film are actual real-life animal actors, who are also expertly trained to pull off the scenes portrayed on screen. And from the perspective of an animal trainer, this is very impressive indeed. Babe has everything: a wide variety of adorable talking animals, humor, heartfelt moments, wonderful character development, surprising character arcs, a fantastic plot, important life lessons, expert animal training, impressive special effects, wonderful music, talented actors, and even singing mice! You can’t go wrong with this one. Whether you expected it to be my top pick or not, absolutely see Babe with the whole family; you’re sure to love it!