Snow White vs. All Dogs Go To Heaven: A Look at How Kid’s Movies Encouraged the Founding of the Furry Fandom.
by Patch O'Furr
Here’s a fantastic guest post by Amanda Riesling. Her blog’s recent post about Furries is highly recommended. – Patch
Note: This article concerns itself exclusively with fully animated feature films produced in America and released prior to 2000. The article’s scope is limited so narrowly mainly because it is a blog post and therefore too short to cover a wide range of media. If you care why the parameters were chosen, there’s a note at the bottom of the article.
Cartoons are a fantastic storytelling medium because all you need to do is make sure your story can be translated into visual images. That’s it. Once you tick that box, you can cast off the confines of reality and tell whatever story you want.
However, despite the visual freedom, a good storyteller still needs to tell a story the audience can relate to. In my opinion, this is the real key to why anthropomorphic stories encouraged the furry fandom.
An audience needs to see themselves in the hero. They need to be able to project themselves and relate to that character. If they can’t bond with the main character somehow, they won’t enjoy the movie. If your main characters are human, half the battle is done for you. In fact, the blander, more generic your human hero is, the easier it will be for the audience to relate. You can have the goddamn Matrix going on, but as long as your main dude is an expressionless white guy with a vague backstory, people can pretend to be him. For a more pop-culture version of what I’m saying, watch Cracked.com’s video.
If your main character is a human, this is great news for your film. Your character can be bland, and your story can be as shallow as a Petri dish, and people will still relate because they see a human face. (Not that all human-centered movies are shallow. I said can be. They don’t have to be.)
If you enjoy Western animated films, this could be a problem. It’s especially an issue if you don’t self-identify as a pretty girl. Let’s look at the human-centered animations made by Disney before 2000 as an example, since Disney was arguably the most popular and influential kids’ movie-maker of the time.
A solid majority of these movies make physical attractiveness an important factor in their story. As far as themes go, that’s a pretty thin one.
However, a weak theme isn’t a big problem in a movie about humans. It might even boost sales. Again, the broader, more generic your story is, the more people it can appeal to. You just have to take your everyman character, plug him/her into a monomyth structure, and away you go.
On the other hand, if your character is not human, you better make damn sure you tell an engaging story with distinct characters. You can’t just plop a female character on screen, draw her “pretty,” and call it a day. Your viewers can’t project their own self-images onto something with a tail, can they?
So when Disney decided to play with non-human characters, they needed to work harder on coming up with solid stories, preferably stories with elements that normal humans might encounter in reality.
Dumbo, for instance, is one of the few animated characters who deals with parental abandonment/ imprisonment in a realistic way: with drugs and alcohol. I’m not saying that’s healthy, but it sure is common, so the message here is: Dumbo understands the temptation to self-destruct. But after he loses his shit, he picks himself up and keeps going. Along the way, he finds friends and deals with bullying.
Lady and the Tramp is surprisingly realistic for a movie about talking dogs. Instead of dragons and witches and poison, that movie shows a scary rat, how it feels when your parents have a new baby, and a car accident. And as for the romance in that movie? Instead of a prince with a shoe fetish, there’s a regular dude who is romantic but has had relationships before you came along. His past turns out to be irrelevant: he fights the rat even though Lady’s mad at him. That’s a legitimately powerful lesson right there: even when you have problems with your partner, fight for them anyway.
The Fox and the Hound discusses the nature of friendship. Robin Hood is about class dynamics. Oliver and Company is Oliver Twist, and The Lion King is Hamlet, both of which are more complex and interesting than a fairy tale. Hell, there’s even The Rescuers Down Under to show how dangerous Australia is.
And that’s just a handful of Disney movies. All Dogs Go to Heaven deals with gambling addiction, an orphan’s desire for a family, the difficulties of being a single mother, and the concept of death. The Secret of NIMH is about animal testing, leadership vs. corruption, and the bravery of a widowed mother. The Velveteen Rabbit covers friendship, loss, and an afterlife concept. The Land Before Time is about prejudice, teamwork, and the apocalypse. An American Tail is about immigration, sweatshops, and organized crime. Charlotte’s Web is about giving a voice to the tragically voiceless.
On top of that incredibly varied list of themes, there’s practically a whole subgenre of animations concerning governmental regimes, which is a fucking heavy concept for children. Watership Down….good Lord, how is this a kid’s movie? I read the book, which is about types of government and religions, but the movie just took all the bloody bits and made a Tarantino cartoon. At any rate, the story has some complex shit to say. But don’t worry, if Watership Down and Animal Farm are a bit dark for you, Antz does totalitarian regimes a little more lightheartedly. A Bug’s Life came out the same year as Antz, and it’s a retelling of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable. Basically, the same year gave us two political ant movies, one about totalitarianism and the other about capitalism.
I could keep going, but I’m getting bored. You’ve got the point.
Back in the human camp, we’ve got Race for Your Life Charlie Brown, which is awesome, and I watched it so much as a kid the VHS wore out. Peanuts covers a wide range of topics, which is great…but….just by the way….the most popular character is the dog. The Prince of Egypt came out in 1999, right before this article’s cut off year, and it’s an epic about an unlikely hero. Not bad, but this list is still pretty short compared to the other one. (Also, when was the last time you parted an entire sea and walked a bunch of refugees through it?)
Things started to change around 2000, but Disney still felt the need to spice up its human characters by turning at least one of them into a llama (The Emperor’s New Groove).
If you grew up enjoying American animated films, the message is clear: animals have all the fun. Humans are boring as fuck, unless you want to be a pretty princess. Hell, the princesses even get upstaged in their own movies by non-humans. I didn’t know Aladdin was a princess movie at all until someone told me. I thought it was about the genie, because that dude’s awesome. He’s also immortal, because being a human is lame. Fairy godmothers are way more useful than their protagonists. Even the mice are cooler than Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast has a whole cast of furniture, none of whom fall in love with their abusive kidnapper.
Mere humans aren’t that compelling in these stories. Non-humans are the cool ones, the ones we grew up wanting to be. Those are the ones we related to. Those characters can sink down into a person’s consciousness and take root. Most people absorb the messages of the movies and ignore the species of the one giving the message. Furries, however, remember that it was a dog who stood between a loaded gun and his friend, and they want that level of bravery for themselves.
Amanda Riesling runs an adults-only blog, Deep Fried Pancakes. She is also the author of a collection of dinosaur erotica (adults only).
Reasons why the article was limited to American fully animated feature films released before 2000:
1) The furry fandom started up sometime in the ‘80s and got its first real surge with The Lion King, which was released in 1995. The author feels it is reasonable to assume the fandom began and initially grew because of people who experienced childhood prior to 2000. (http://en.wikifur.com/wiki/History)
2) It is the author’s belief that TV shows have only recently begun to fully explore the depth and breadth of story telling. In the author’s opinion, film and TV prior to 2000 were fundamentally different story telling mediums. This is why the article doesn’t mention Looney Tunes or Hanna Barbera. If you want a follow-up article on her opinions about Saturday Morning Cartoons and their influence on American culture, feel free to leave a comment.
3) Live action films are excluded because of the pervasiveness of visual art in the furry community. Even though the author really loves Milo and Otis, they have been left out of the article.
4) Japanese anime is excluded because, let’s face it—anime is a different subculture. Furries and anime have some overlap, but they are distinct fandoms.
I generally agree with this, but regarding reason #2 about TV cartoons prior to 2000, don’t ignore the 1965-1966 “Kimba the White Lion”. Almost all of the first furry fans of the 1980s named Kimba the lion cub’s trying to get the African carnivores and herbivores to live together in peace, his search for a way for the friendlier carnivores (like himself) to give up eating meat without starving to death, and his fight to get humans to accept the animals as social equals, as a major influence on their continuing to like cartoon talking animals past childhood.
I agree with “animal characters are harder to identify with so you need to make the story extra good”. Totally true.
But I’ll add another thing. It is also much easier to make a cartoon animal expressive and visually interesting. Humans don’t move around much, and are very stoic compared to a cartoon rabbit jumping and doing somersaults all around the screen. So, it is a great challenge to make an animated human character physically expressive. If you are an artist, and don’t want to be stuck drawing furries all your life, try the “expressive human” challenge. Few succeed at it, but those who do deserve a goddamn medal.
Well, yes, but a major problem with almost all animated features is a reliance on “Just look at our pretty cartoon animation and cute dancing-&-talking animals, and don’t pay attention to our lack of a good story”. Walt Disney personally understood this. Don Bluth surely doesn’t, despite having several professional colleagues argue the point with him. Bluth’s characters always look good; overemote all over the screen; and are either boring or not believable. In “Rock*A*Doodle”, the protagonist is an 8-year-old farmboy, who’s grown up on a farm, and he’s supposedly seriously worried that the owl in his parent’s barn is going to eat their pig and cow? I can believe that only if the kid is supposed to be feeble-minded.
His first 4 movies in the 90s are universally regarded as bad, even by the man himself. I don’t think they should be used as an example.
And let’s not forget Walt Disney did not write or animate any of the DIsney movies. Snow White was an incredibly bland character, the prince 1,000 times more so. Princess Aurora was not much better. The woodland animals in Snow White and talking mice in Cinderella are more interesting than the bland human protagonists.
Went a bit overboard here, but Don is one of my favorite artists, and I will defend his name in a heartbeat.
Very interesting observations, and I for one woul love to read a followup about saturday morning cartoons. Most prodessional artists and animators seem to consider them trash entertainment that is only noteworthy because of the nostalgia factor, but that seems unfair considering how much they influemced popular culture and following western animation.
Cool idea 🙂 I wonder if there are notable exceptions to the trash reputation? I’d have to think about it.
Walt Disney had full story control over his 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s movies. He didn’t write or draw any of them, but he supervised their progress closely. If he felt something didn’t work, he ordered it changed. He agreed that almost all the human characters were deliberately bland; where he concentrated was on the animals (considering the seven dwarfs as “animals”). “Peter Pan” was an exception.
He did make some bad decisions, and he sometimes let himself be overruled. He originally wanted Pinocchio’s & Jiminy Cricket’s escape from Pleasure Island to look like an escape from a Nazi concentration camp. All his staff thought that was much too topical and would date “Pinocchio” too much. Disney deferred to them.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Disney made no secret that he was concentrating on Disneyland and his plans for EPCOT, and he was turning over his studio to run itself.
The first TV cartoons, especially Hanna-Barbera’s and Jay Ward’s, were made with less TV network control. As the networks exercised increasing control, the cartoons got worse and worse; especially by the “Saturday morning” period when the networks ran everything heavy-handedly. About the only TV cartoon where the studio was allowed to exercise control was Filmation’s “Star Trek: The Animated Series”, and that was because everyone knew that Filmation was working closely with the original “Star Trek” creators and voice actors. Hanna-Barbera’s “SWAT Cats” was generally considered superior — unlike, say, “The Cowboys of M.O.O. Mesa” or “BraveStarr”.
I haven’t changed my mind about Don Bluth’s work. His animation is technically great, but he needs (or needed; is he retired today?) much better stories; or stronger and more believable rather than funnier characters.