I love films. I love animals. I love movies with animals. So why not have a little ‘best of the animal films’ session. Watching all my favorites, some stood up to the test of time but, most where just tosh. Foolishly, I hadn’t yet learned my lesson and decided to watch every Beethoven film made; thinking it would be a mildly fun diversion from real life pressures of dog ownership. It was not.

My love of the genre fading with each entry of the franchise I thought I had reached a fever pitch of apathy. If there was one thing that kept me going through the burn out was the surprise casting in each of the films. You had your Oliver Platts, your Judd Reinholds, your Kathy Griffins, the list somewhat goes on. I had nearly given up when I saw that in the seventh Beethoven film Robert Picardo took on one half the Home Alone style bad guy duo archetype that has been long played all the way out.

Could my favorite actor from Star Trek Voyager be enough to get me through? I thought it could be, but then something happened. I saw into the void. The black empty void of nothingness. The laziness and horror of a hollow pitch black dog’s computer-generated maw as Beethoven uttered his first words made me want to stop it all, burn my Blu-rays and it just got worse. With this dilution of a yet another beloved franchise I have decided avert my better judgment and take a look at talking animals from film and television’s recent history seeking something better than this and maybe something even worse.

Here we go:

The Bad

Beethoven from Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure (2011)

Beethoven’s fall from grace was not a quick splat to the bottom but instead a slow drag down a rough decline into abject mediocrity and far, far beyond. We’d been through so much with the Newtons and their massive family of tenuous relations (each sequel featuring a different previously unmentioned and increasingly tenuous branch of the Newton family tree).

The thing with Beethoven films is that normally, no matter how bad the film was, it had been competently made and has pretty decent supporting roles. After all, they are John Hugh’s joints known for making timeless classics and easily forgettable flops. Working my way through the entire series, despair only really started to kick in around the fourth entry. Eventually, in the sixth film (“Beethoven’s Big Break”) the franchise completely implodes on itself and reboots with a fictionalized biopic of the dog and trainer that stared in the original Beethoven films.

All of a sudden everyone in-universe knows that Beethoven is a world-famous celebrity dog. Whenever anyone sees the prodigious pooch he is immediately recognized, no one ever considers it to be a different dog of the same species.

Committed to the cause, I reluctantly drudged on. Finally a treat – “Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure”. How could it have taken six sequels to get to a Christmas Beethoven film? Had this been what I had been waiting for? The darn dog doesn’t even look the same as the rest of the series. Apparently, the same breed but the mutt’s face is all wrong.

While this should have been the dog’s worst outing yet, I did not yet know bad dogs. Why didn’t they just leave it alone? Money. Apprehensive and expecting disappointment but unknowing of the cosmic horrors that silently awaited. A trusted family friend betrayed me.

Boiling “Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure” down to a few paragraphs does it any favors. Watching it does even less. How had civilization declined so far where we had evolved to the point that this had been thought up, agreed, and developed by sapient beings? What hath we done to wrought the abomination that was a film about a talking Beethoven, the movie star dog? As his computer-generated lips barely flapped in vague time to the smarmy tones of Tom Arnold, I couldn’t help but think what has led us here?

Here we go. The film starts with one of the least animated credits openings of all time, barely narrated by John Cleese on his Nokia 3310. This segment serves no prepose at all other than being able to help a former Monty Python with alimony payments and pad the film as all narrative points made are once again explained a little more clearly in the live action parts. Plus this intro makes Santa seem a little discriminatory on first viewing. After the longest two and third minutes ever of “animation,” we open on a snowed over town, where a teenager (played exasperatingly by a very 21-year-old Munro Chambers) is getting caught by his mother doing a fake charity scam. Upon seeing this his mother, who works in advertising, she immediately hands over her star client dog to him to look after.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

Due to Christmas magic being performed by a rogue elf, formerly of Santa’s employ, Beethoven, and another dog down the line, are forced to speak. The elf in question is sulking because he has not been given the standard elf job of toy maker by Santa and instead is left charge of his reindeer. This is seen as a slight, so he steals all the flying reindeer and sulkily flies away before crash-landing the sleigh in front of the world’s most famous St Bernard. The talking dogs in this film serve no purpose and really did not need to be in a Beethoven film at all and only performs this world-changing miracle To prove he is an elf to our teenage main character by using a deus ex machina, sorry magical dog biscuit.

They should have had the guts to make it a separate Christmas franchise about one of his pups or maybe just not bothered. Beethoven was one of the greatest pet film franchises growing from a cute puppy filled with unexpected joy and potential to a limping, bloated disappointment that has bitten the baby one too many times and now needs to be put down. Well, at least that has to be the last one in the series… Fuck sakes now I have to watch Beethoven’s Treasure Trove (2014). At least in the next one Beethoven’s Christmas speaking spell has worn off and has the always perfectly cast Jeffrey Combs!!! ❤️❤️❤️

Sherlock from Sherlock: Undercover Dog AKA Sherlock Bones AKA Sherlock Bones: Ace Detective (1994)

Can having multiple names for one movie possibly hide your substandard filmmaking? Not really no. This film aims to please everyone and fails to except to the very least discerning of audience members. Billy a fan of tall stories, visiting his divorced father in Catalina, comes to the aid of a talking police dog who tells him his police master has been kidnapped by smugglers and must be rescued to get his family’s honor back. Just another regular walk in the park then? No? Well, that’s pretty much how the characters act here. Yawning from line to line.

Dullness prevails as we meet an unlikeable father, William, poorly modeled after the Honey I Shrunk the Kids bumbling inventor father archetype; a brilliant dweeb that creates useless, unwanted “innovations” such as a crappier golf cart or the basketball phone. The excuse this time is he’s a toymaker, but really the father character is so incompetent a human being that he cannot use a mirror without hurting himself. The Father’s actions would be explained by the repeated head traumas we see him receive throughout this predictable mutt of a movie.

Cashing in on the Home Alone filmmaking fad, this is one of those poorly thought-out 90’s kid’s films that confuse noise with action and serious bodily harm with slapstick comedy when the myth that kids films needed to have continuous sound rather than competent production values. It’s like being stuck on a long haul flight sitting next to a babbling baby playing Bop It. The incessant wackiness wears thin almost instantly, and soon the experience transcends monotony and irritation. William and Billy run over the titular talking dog detective, Sherlock. Before the kooky family begrudgingly adopt him, he is taken to a vet that doesn’t question Sherlock’s eye patch and kisses the unknown stray dog after basically threatening the dog’s life in a casually passive aggressive tone pretty much saying “Take him home, or I kill him.” The plot only goes on from there, but it’s rubbish, and you wouldn’t care if I told you.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

One the few things this film has going for it is the classic use of peanut butter or some other mild irritant to make it seem as though the dog is talking by spreading it under the dog’s lip flaps. This is only implemented sporadically at best, and when he speaks Sherlock’s mouth typically is hidden from sight, but mostly he’s just off screen! This film is filled to brim with cop-outs, compromises, and mistakes. Between the random flickering and the wrong size lens being used on the camera (thankfully obscuring a tiny portion of the action on screen), this film is amateur and pointless.

If there’s anything not to hate about this, it’s the poor dog playing Sherlock. It’s not his fault he was cast in this dud. He is a stunner and looks to be a good sport about having an eye patch glued on but the rest of the cast is entirely unlikable. With a few tweaks this film could have almost been a Black Dynamite or Naked Gun satire of lousy animal films, but unfortunately, the joke is on the viewer. You can call a dog shit by any other name, but once you’ve touched it, you’re gonna stink too.

The Rollergator from Rollergator (1996)

Donald G. Jackson had four obsessions throughout his lifetime: rollerblades, amphibious lifeforms, zen filmmaking, and the Chupacabra. There is no Chupacabra in this intended for families feature flop, only pain. In the standard move for films of this ilk RollerGator has two semi-recognizable names and the rest of the casting is made up of what seems to be anyone the film crew owes a favor to.

This fumbled casting method allows Joe Estevez to shine like the brilliant burning star he is. What a good sport he is. Most of his dialogue is mumbled improvisation clearly trying to remain positive in stressful situations, at one point you can see his hand open and close a mask’s mouth to make it look like he’s eating his sidekick. Even with decades of goodwill created by Joe Estevez making shitty films spectacular this film is a hard, hard watch. Conrad Brooks a lousy film legend, an alumnus of Ed Wood films, brings his expected weirdness to the proceedings, skipping and babbling throughout but bringing nothing but filler to film until at the end he snatches the Roller gator and rushes off.

The eponymous Roller Gator is an abomination formed of what seems to be two Boglins and a Snickers wrapper duct-taped together but is more likely a leftover prop from one of Jackson’s previous films. What there is of the Roller Gator’s character is utterly detestable. It’s as if a faded bootleg Bart Marley T-shirt has come to life. There is literally nothing to like. There’s one poorly made puppet that is reused in every shot. Not a single joke is funny, and there’s a whole scene dedicated to his U grade impersonations of long-dead or forgotten celebrities.

Worse still is the entirely tacked on rapping sections where you will officially hear the most substandard beatboxing of all time. Next time someone ever criticizes the modern overuse of CG in cinema they should be forced to watch this film. The closest Roller Gator came to dramatic tension is when at one point the Gator gets kidnapped for under nine seconds.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

The nonsensical plot is harder to keep up with than a skateboarding ninja, which this film has. Sounds great? Wrong. This film is like a checklist of my twelve-year-old self’s idea of cool stuff: Ninja? Check. Tiny dinosaurs? Check. Rollerblading? Check. Teenage girls fighting each other? Check. This film also looks like it was made by my twelve-year-old self: Inappropriate, creepy leering shots of young girls in short shorts, filmed using a VHS camera in 4:3 aspect and most of the runtime is made up of obviously improvised flubbed lines, boom mike in the shot. Any of this could have been acceptable if anything was entertaining or heartfelt and didn’t seem to be put together with one day ticket to a fun fair.

I really wanted to like Donald G. Jackson and his risk-taking filmmaking methods but this is unwatchable, and he peaked all too early with Hell Comes to Frog Town. None of his other films quite ever reached the absurd brilliance of Rowdy Roddy Piper playing the last fertile human in a post-apocalyptic landscape riddled with amphibians and mutants. It’s a messy and fun film best not spoilt by watching any of the sequels or any of his other movies, especially this one.

The Good

Amy from Congo (1995)

A film about gorillas that features no actual non-human primates, this is more of a movie about big ideas, compromises, and mediocre 90’s puppetry. With a big emphasis on the average 90’s puppetry. Best watched in groups of people when you don’t want to concentrate on or necessarily watch a film but still need some noise in the room to distract from the ever-present social tension. Every time I rewatch this floundering attempt at Spielbergian greatness, there is another gem to be treasured. So many unquotable lines and forgettable walk-ons. “You must put the sesame cake down!”

A complicated creation from the start, in the late 70’s Micheal Crichton wanted to do a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines. 20th Century Fox handed over $1.5million advance for the rights to the novel, screenplay, and a directing fee. This was before he had even written a word of the book. This was an unusual method for him, and the pressure got to be too much for Crichton. Eventually, he ended up spending time in an isolation tank to fight off his writer’s block. The book later went on to be a best seller and led Crichton to write a script throughout the 80’s with Sean Connery in mind as the main character and himself directing but, this never materialized due to not being able to use real gorillas.

What we got was the 1995 film version of Congo, directed by Frank Marshall. Despite near unanimous critical hatred and being nominated a Worst Picture Razzi it went on to make over three times its budget back in the box office. Even with a cast that would make your eyes bleed (including Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, Joe Don Baker, Laura Linny, and Delroy Lindo) this unintentionally hilarious film flounders. Of course, like nearly every film on this list, the unbeatable Frank Welker provides vocal effects- that man has more animals in him than a Zoo. All Hail Megatron.

The main hook of the film (apart from Tim Curry obviously) is Amy’s cybernetic voice, which is not performed by a text to speech app as I had initially thought but instead a real-life actor. It is so out of place and silly it never gets old! Using a magic Nintendo Power Glove, Amy is able to communicate with English speaking characters as her sign language is immediately processed into audio. This marvelous technological development is wasted on a monkey and is probably more valuable than any gold or gem found in the Lost City of Zinj.

Through Amy’s puppet eyes we see the depth’s of humanity’s greed and obsession, truly the Moby Dick of 90’s talking animal movies. Another one of the best things about “Congo” is the unique relationship Amy has with her Stephen Gutenburg impersonating handler. “Amy seven years old.” “Amy loves you.” “Tickle me!” I really get the feeling that Amy’s handler is keen to dump her in the Congo with other gorillas out of fear of where their blossoming romance may go if left unchecked. Amy comes across as an amalgamation of Nathan Sims (“We Can Be Heros”) and a Tickle Me Elmo doll where the batteries are slowly fading away. Both somewhat annoying and very nearly likable with only her dead monkey stares counting against her.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

It’s almost like a completely unepic Star Wars set on Earth with no aliens. They wish to utilize Amy’s maps drawn from her dreams and monkey speech skills by returning her to her birthplace, the titular Congo, encouraging her to ask other Gorillas where the buried treasure is. This fails spectacularly. The mission is ultimately sabotaged by Laura Linny as she’s reasonably miffed about losing her ex-fiancé in a previous expedition to the Congo.

It’s impressive how few real animals are in a film set in the jungle. Not a single real chimp or monkey spotted. Did they even go to Africa? If so, why? Upon rewatching there does seem to be an actual real-life gecko that is looked at by Amy. This is one of those films that makes you wish the technology was real. Image a world where every monkey could tell us precisely what they are thinking. Imagine that utopia for a second. Then imagine how many gallons of sweat was poured out of each actor’s sun broiled gorilla suits at the end of each day’s shooting. One of these worlds exists, and I know which I’d rather live in.

Blood from A Boy & His Dog (1974)

World War IV lasted FIVE DAYS… Starting with an inverted nuclear explosion is a dramatic and unsettling way to let the audience know to leave their expectations at the door. Don Jonson plays a savage teenager on the verge of adulthood, Vic. His life is nothing but a long grind of angst, isolation and survival only broken up by his one trusted companion’s jokes and advice, Blood, whose job it is to help him locate women in return for food. A Boy & His Dog is a film about the loneliness of growing up, the loyalty of a dog and the danger of an unguided youth. A tale of jealousy as a best friend gets replaced. The main character walks through a dog’s (or a naive boy’s) idea of heaven. A land full of grime, battle, and death but any adult’s idea of hell, where people are bought and discarded like tools and toys, where wild men subside on nothing but meat and women.

Blood is a dog that has mutated in the radioactive wastelands of a dead America. Part of his unfortunate mutation is that he lost his standard keen dog senses and hunting skills, however, to make up for this Blood can psychically communicate and track human beings, possibly related the fact he can receive and project thoughts. These messages have the crackles and pops of a CB radio which to me makes it feel uncertain as to weather Blood is really a mutant or if Vic is so longing for a company that he imagines these conversations. In the book, graphic novel and short stories it is made clear that the dog is able to speak telepathically but it is never really explicitly stated in the film, and I found the uncertainty of whether or not Blood’s voice was only heard in Vic’s imagination to enhance the feeling of isolation and loneliness really.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

Blood’s bitter put-downs and unrepentant honesty is the closest thing to parental guidance Vic has had in his short life, this is no doubt what has turned him into a scavenging animal only reliant on his mutated dog and keen senses. While the “A Boy & His Dog” cycle is not the most famous or well remembered of all post-apocalyptic fiction, Ellison’s nightmarish vision of a primitive future that never was lives on in many films and video games. Stylistically the Fallout series is almost an open world RPG adaptation of the Boy & His Dog cycle. The corpse of America that serves as the setting for both sets of works is virtually interchangeable. At one point Blood actually calls his best friend and master ‘Dogmeat’ (the name of a beloved dog from Fallout 3)! At one point in their hideous quest, Vic and Blood pass through a village that is both a celebration and damnation of American culture is terrifyingly portrayed as a traditional forgotten culture stereotyped and homogenized into a nearly unrecognizable state. All the residents of this hideous citadel wear face paint and live in a dazed drugged state (see We Happy Few).

In a similar vein to the Mist, the ending of the film is bleakly hilarious, without going into spoiler territory a controversial life choice is made. Harlan Ellison disliked the conclusion of the movie so much that he killed off Vic in the graphic novel sequel and was going to replace him with a new female protagonist, Spike, in the scrapped film A Girl and Her Dog, but plans where sadly thrown out when Tiger, the dog who portrayed Blood, died. This storyline actually came to fruition in Ellison’s story, Blood’s a Rover when the dog partners with Spike after the death of Vic.

Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996)

The most well implemented talking animal of all time has to be, paws down, Salem Saberhagen. The fact that he spoke was entirely in context with the narrative of the classic Nickelodeon 90’s multicamera family sit-com and never felt out of place. It never felt like we were watching the animatronics and not the character. Undeniably it was a puppet being controlled by up to three people, while four stunt cats where used for shots of movement and close-ups. The necessities of puppetry are generally hidden by tables which would be out of place for any other animal but for a house cat, this is a disgusting fact of life that cat lovers live with. Unlike the earlier but thematically similar sitcom Alf, where people would have to drape themselves around in unnatural posses to hide the puppeteer’s hands and rebuilt sets around him. Fun Fact: off camera Alf was creepy and racist!

Salem was iconically voiced by the star of “Angry Beavers”, Nick Bakay. This was not the case for the made for TV pilot movie where in Salem is expressed in a much creepier tone by an uncredited actor that sounds like he’s waiting for Sabrina to fall asleep so he can lay on her face and suffocate her making the show all about him. In contrast to the previous Archie Comics and cartoon iterations of Salem, Bakay’s character was not a mute black and white cat in league with evil, conspiring against Sabrina to commit devilish acts against humanity to balance the scales of universe justice. This iteration became the codifier of all Salems to come after. Bakay’s performance encapsulates the dual nature of a former human totalitarian megalomaniac sentenced to several millennia of servitude as a domestic pet; a brutal killer full of regret, allure and the holier than thou attitude of all cats and dictators, however unlike most cats he often gave sage wisdom and also provided most of the series best humor and occasionally reaching significant levels of pathos. Salem taught us all that family is more than blood, it is those you love.

Talking Animals in Film and TV: The Good and The Bad - n3rdabl3

After departing Mystery Science Theater 3000, Frank Conniff served as series writer and producer for Sabrina and many other classic sitcoms, his comedic tone is heard through Salem’s voice, treacle rich with equal parts smarm and charisma but Salem also echoes Behemoth, the man-sized black cat, from “The Master and the Magenta”. The many parallels between Salem and Behemoth are uncanny, the only exception being their size. Both trickster cats serve very similar roles in their universe being considered unfunny, offering world-weary advice and tips from someone that has seen it all before and potentially dangerous but in actual fact are the driving force of comedy throughout each work.

Salem is the only character to appear in every single episode of the series, other than the titular Sabrina and predictably Mellissa Jones Hart is now a dog person. She apparently did not enjoy the constant smell of cat food on set for over seven years, which combined with powerful studio lights could probably get pretty pungent. Not to fear though as the entire cast wasn’t ailurophobic by the end of production, Aunt Hilda (Caroline Rhea) is a cat person! “I was always the one who had to be mean to the cats, and I’m the one who, like, loves the cats the most! I’d always be petting them,” she said in an interview. However, the hatchet was buried in 2013 when Jones Hart and Bakay reunited for a Funny or Die special. It is nice to see the old wounds healed.

It is no surprise that Bakay continued playing Salem long after the live-action series ended and then the made the jump to animation, while Mellissa Jones Hart stepped out of Sabrina’s pointed shoes and her younger sister Emily Hart (annoying cousin Amanda on the sitcom) voiced Sabrina. Melissa instead voiced Sabrina’s two aunts, Hilda and Zelda. The cartoon had a theme tune performed by B*Witched, so it obviously has not become dated at all.

Strangest of all it is actually possible to buy or rent an actual Salem puppet that was used in the show. Before you get too excited, the puppet has been repurposed for another job and is now white. Seriously. $20,000 is pretty steep especially when it literally looks the opposite of how you remember it.

~

“Why do animated cartoonists use animals? For the same reason that Aesop, La Fontaine, Kipling, Beatrix Potter, and Kenneth Grahame did: it is easier and more believable to humanize animals than it is to humanize humans.”
— Chuck Jones

Supposedly all creative endeavors bring something of merit to be recognized just possibly not Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure. I feel guilty for hating on all these beautiful puppets and pets, but perhaps we should all remember; there are no bad dogs just bad dog owners that force their pets into the spotlight. How’s about every once in a while feed them at the table, let them up on the bed and give them a treat from me, because they just want to be your buddy. But most of all remember to spay and neuter your pets!

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