They haunt our nightmares. They steal our hard-earned cash. And if you have kids still young enough for Happy Meals and cootie shots, forget about it -- your soul is theirs for the taking, one two-hour block of your life at a time. We're talking about Talking Animal Movies, and if history is any indication, the next few months might be a little rough for grown-ups at the multiplex.
The good news is that this summer has its share of must-see animated sequels practically guaranteed to be good-to-great: namely, Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After. But summer 2010 will also see a rogue wave of Talking Animal Movies, a subgenre so routinely cheesy and mind-numbing that every time a new one comes along, you almost expect to see folks like Brendan Fraser hamming it up opposite animatronic or computer-generated animals for laughs. Oh, right. In fairness, I'll reserve judgment on Fraser's latest until it proves me wrong this April 30, along with Marmaduke, based on the comic strip so old that Eric D. Snider took time to explain its origins for the youngin's (June 4) and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (July 30). And after that, I will look forward with hopeful skepticism to the animated owl superhero flick The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (Sept. 24), the live-action/CG "animals give Kevin James dating advice" flick The Zookeeper (Oct. 8), and the 3-D live-action/CG adaptation Yogi Bear starring Justin Timberlake as Boo-Boo (Dec. 17).
In the meantime, I'll dwell happily on some of the hands-down best Talking Animal Movies ever made. These classics manage to avoid cliché and corniness even while floating the conceit that their animal protagonists can think and talk like humans, whether via speaking, voice-over narration, or telepathy. (Animated films featuring talking animals have been saved for another discussion, because, let's face it, talking animals rule in animated films. Less so in live-action, real-world settings, which is where we get the Racing Stripes and the Underdogs and -- shudder -- the Garfield movies.)
George Miller and Chris Noonan's film about an adorable talking pig-slash-wannabe sheep dog notched an Oscar win and six additional Academy Award nominations, including nods for Best Director (for Noonan), Best Adapted Screenplay (credited to Noonan and Miller), and Best Picture. When it comes to Talking Animal Films, Babe is routinely (and deservedly) at the top of most lists. Charming and magical, this barnyard fable never skimps on character, effects, or heart and features excellent performances by the likes of James Cromwell and voice-over actress Christine Cavanaugh.
Charlotte's Web (2006)
A decade after Babe nabbed its Oscar, another farmhouse charmer sought to win over audiences with a tale of porcine-human friendship. Beefing up E.B. White's classic children's story a tad to highlight Dakota Fanning's winning turn as Fern, the spunky farmer's daughter who saves piglet Wilbur from slaughter, Charlotte's Web remained faithful enough to the original text to delight fans of the book young and old alike -- and thankfully, the CG-powered sight of moving the mouths of its animal characters to talk was slicker than that in Babe, and just as subtle.
My personal love affair with cute animals had a lot to do with this Japanese film about two unlikely animal buddies -- Milo the kitten and Otis the pug puppy -- who become pals and go on adventures across fields and mountains and woods. English-speaking audiences were treated to their adventures and dialogue via narrator Dudley Moore, who spoke the animals' thoughts over cleverly-wrangled footage of adorable kittens and puppies and deers and bears, all of it edited into a gorgeous nature adventure cuter than a hundred lolcats combined. ("I can haz friendshipz?")
Homeward Bound (1993)
Another quintessential talking-animals-on-a-road-trip movie is 1993's Homeward Bound, a feel-good comedy adventure remake of the 1963 Disney film The Incredible Journey. If you've ever wondered why your cat pees on your suitcase when you're leaving for a trip, this movie explained it: pets don't want to be abandoned! Which is why, when their humans ditch them with friends and drive off to San Francisco, Chance the bulldog (voiced by Michael J. Fox), Sassy the spoiled kitty (voiced by Sally Field), and Shadow the veteran Golden Retriever (voiced by Don Ameche) haul off on a cross-country trip just to return to their owners. BECAUSE THEY LOVE THEM!
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
As much as I love the cutesy exploits of Milo and Otis and the Homeward Bound trio, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention L.Q. Jones' cult sci-fi flick about a young stud named Vic (played by a fresh-faced Don Johnson) surviving the post-apocalypse with the help of his trusty canine companion, Blood. An expert in the field of sniffing out ladies for his human companion (politically correct this movie is not; it's based on a Harlan Ellison short story), Blood is equipped with genetically-engineered telepathic powers that allow him to communicate with Vic and crack jokes left and right with a cynical sigh. With an excellently sarcastic voice-over performance by Tim McIntire (and an astoundingly good physical performance by canine actor Tiger, who also played the family dog on The Brady Bunch), Blood is one of my all-time favorite talking mutts.