From Hollywood's earliest days, dogs, cats and horses have been immortalized on celluloid, a few even sharing the bill with such elite actors as a young Roddy McDowell (1943's "Lassie Come Home") and Elizabeth Taylor (1944's "National Velvet"). As a veteran film journalist, I've screened more than a few of these companion-animal flicks and decided that a good one doesn't have to obey reality; in fact, the best sometimes do quite the opposite. Here are my faves:
1The Yearling (1946)
In this classic, set in post-Civil War Florida, young Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.) begs to keep a fawn as a pet after his father (Gregory Peck) kills its mother. The fawn and the lonely boy become fast friends. All is well until the yearling tramples tobacco crops and eats the family's corn, leading to the dreaded "Old Yeller" moment wherein Jody has to put the yearling down. Anyone who's ever had to deal with the end of a pet's life -- or the trampling of tobacco -- will get teary-eyed.
Babe may have gotten the Academy Award nominations in 1995, but in terms of talking swine, Gordy was that year's little piglet that could. The titular snorter -- born near Bill Clinton's birthplace of Hope, Ark. -- luckily misses his family's trip to the slaughterhouse. He then goes on a quest for his kin, traversing the South like a porcine Huck Finn. On the way he discovers that the only ones who can hear him speak are open-hearted children. Rarely do animal films -- even "The Incredible Journey" -- have such a sense of America and the open road.
The 1960s TV series gave the slippery protagonist more personality, but this big-screen adaptation has the whole ocean as its canvas. Here, sullen teen Sandy (a pre-"Lord of the Rings" Elijah Wood) reluctantly spends a summer in the Florida Keys with his salty Uncle Porter (Paul Hogan), where he finds a bottle-nosed buddy. Boy and dolphin cruise hand-to-fin, and the underwater photography is stunning (on the TV original, it always looked as if the kids were being attacked by jellyfish in a murky pool). Flipper saves his kid pal from a scary hammerhead shark, but, even more important, helps him chat up a girl.
Birds often get the short end of the pet-movie stick. But Paulie proves that our feathered friends know why the caged bird sings -- or, as in Paulie's case, gabs. The film is told in flashback, with the parrot, voiced by "Saturday Night Live" vet Jay Mohr, telling research-lab janitor Misha (Tony Shalhoub) about his life: He helped a young girl named Marie (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) overcome her stuttering, encouraged a widow to hit the open road and reluctantly aided a thief. Just when it looks as if things are bleak for Paulie (remember the lab), he and Marie have a genuinely moving reunion.
5Cats & Dogs (2001)
We always knew they were up to something -- but it turns out our canines and felines are actually in the midst of a pitched war! The dogs, armed with high-tech espionage equipment, are under the leadership of Butch (voiced by Alec Baldwin) and his eager young acolyte, Lou the Beagle (Tobey Maguire). The dogs get yappy when a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) develops a vaccine that could eliminate human allergies to dogs. But the cats, under the evil paw of Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes), want to throw a furball into the works and destroy the remedy. The genuinely witty script is like "Austin Powers" for the flea-collar set, and the voice performances are spot on.
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