This week, Neil Calloway looks at what connects four of the top five films of the year…
It came in a pub quiz question last week – what do four of the top five films of 2016 have in common? I got it wrong – I said they were all based on comic books.
It turns out that the answer is not as obvious. Finding Dory, Zootopia/Zootropolis/Zoomania (delete as applicable depending on where you live), The Jungle Book and The Secret Life of Pets all contain talking animals. The only exception in the top five is Captain America: Civil War. Rogue One might edge out some of the others in the top five, but if you’re not a franchise, if you want your film to be a success in 2016, then you need to include some speaking sheep or talking tigers.
So, why do we love anthropomorphised animals so much in our entertainment? Why can you buy, in your nearest bookshop, a photo book retelling of Oliver Twist featuring guinea pigs? The Hot Dudes Reading Books Calendar might sell well this year, but you can bet it will be blown out of the water by Cats Doing Yoga.
The truth is, people find them cute in a way they don’t find humans sweet. I can guarantee that there is at least one actor who you cannot abide, whose rictus grin will make you turn off your favourite chat show when they appear, and whose films you certainly won’t go to see, but that doesn’t happen with animated characters. People like animals in the way that they don’t like humans; rarely do people stay angry with pets, whereas a grudge against a person can – and often does – last a lifetime.
Animation also works better with animals (or toys) than it does with humans; they suit caricature better than we do; they look funnier. A human doing human stuff is normal; an animal doing the same thing is, at the very least, memorable, and a few memorable moments is all you need to make a film a success. They are something familiar in an unusual setting, or something unusual in familiar setting; it is these little twists that are a recipe for success. You can also guarantee that they will be family friendly; animations featuring animals don’t usually contain gratuitous violence or swearing; at the very least they”ll be inoffensive and appeal to the widest possible range of potential audiences.
Importantly, “talking animals” is extremely high concept; it’s easy to pitch to the studio and easy to sell to the public. The Secret Life of Pets is described entirely in its title.
No wonder George Miller found it easier to get Happy Feet off the ground than he did to get Mad Max: Fury Road into production. However, talking pets are no guarantee of box office riches; despite the presence of Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Garner, Nine Lives made less than $20 at the US box office. Your film might contain talking animals, but it also has to be half decent too.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.