It’s a film genre that’s booming in the digital age. The marriage of animation and animals in movies is producing blockbuster after blockbuster with the creative use of technology, antics to please young ones and intelligent, amusing scripts for older viewers. A-list stars, many with Oscars or serious roles under their belts flock to offer their voices. It’s like a hi-tech Renaissance of family movies. The Ice Age series. Rio. Madagascar. They all may be considered classics one day.
But there are a number of stellar films animal lovers have adored for decades. Only one can match the flash of today’s releases. But several carry the mastery of Disney. Others feature great performances, brilliantly original premises, great music and courageous documentary shooting. One could even be said to have virtually created the animal rights movement. It would be an interesting study to find out how these old classics would fare with the iPhone generation of today, bombarded with computer generated image, IMAX, 3D, Tour of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. There is no body count in the movies listed below. Only one fictitious dog dies in all 10 put together.
There are no woolly mammoths or meerkats here. Dogs dominate, but there is something here for cat lovers and equine fans. One pig. A few penguins. These movies have the greatest 4 legged characters ever seen on the screen. If only the animal lovers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could vote, this would be a list of Best Picture winning films. Or if there was a category of Best Picture With Animals as Lead Character, this would be it. According to the Tomatometer, here are the highest rated animal movies of all time.
10 Lady and the Tramp: 89%
It features one of the most memorable and oft-repeated scenes in the history of animated film. Lady, the dog who calls a mansion home and her erstwhile suitor, Tramp, from the wrong side of the tracks, sit down to spaghetti and meatballs provided from dog-loving Italian waiters. They both sup down a strand of spaghetti and don’t discover they both have the same one til their lips meet.
The couple endure muzzles, capture by dogcatcher, and a nasty cat-loving aunt until love conquers all. It was the third highest grossing movie of the 1950’s. A Disney classic, it also featured an amazing score written and sung by the great Peggy Lee.
9 The Lion King: 90%
Yet another Disney hit The Lion King features the voices of several future award-winning actors: Oscar and Emmy winner James Earl Jones as King Mufasa; Jeremy Irons as the evil uncle Scar, Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba. The plot is expressed in the film’s big production number 'The Circle of Life' (written by Sir Elton John). It’s Simba’s journey from youthful prince weathering life’s storms to succeed his father Mufasa as King of the Lions. Have lots of Kleenex for the final scene. It’s as moving as any animated film ever achieves.
8 Born Free: 92%
The first non-animated film on the list and perhaps the most important. This touching Oscar-winning 1966 classic a true story of a woman and her game-warden husband raised an orphaned lion cub named Elsa to release her back into the wild rather than give her to a zoo, they taught Elsa how to survive in the wilderness.
Elsa became a global icon for a whole new concept of animal rights. George and Joy Adamson became wildlife activists launching a foundation that works to end animal suffering and protect threatened species. It’s been said that the book and movie was a game changer that altered the relationship between humans and animals.
7 Lassie Come Home: 94%
This 1943 family classic combines elements of Greek mythology, British history and expert heartstring tugging. A destitute British family is forced to sell their son Joe’s much beloved collie during the Great Depression.
Though well-cared for at her new home by a young Elizabeth Taylor no less, Lassie misses Joe (an also very young Roddy McDowell) and escapes on a dangerous and suspenseful search for her long-lost home. With the help of dog-loving strangers en route, and to no surprise whatever, the exhausted dog reunites with the young boy who had given up hope of ever seeing her again
6 March of the Penguins: 94%
This Oscar-winning documentary is astonishing in every way. It’s the story of a year in the lives of Emperor penguins in the bleakest place on earth. The French crew endured a month there but came away with astonishing footage of the punishing journey the penguins undertake annually to their breeding ground for mating season. Alternatingly heartwarming and heartbreaking, it’s an amazing portrayal of the hardships willingly endured for the survival of the species.
Roger Ebert wrote that those hardships were so incredible you couldn’t blame them if they said to hell with it and evolved into creatures who could swim to Patagonia. Sparingly narrated by Morgan Freeman. A serious film and a great achievement.
5 Babe: 97%
Another 100 percenter given second because of a Best Picture nomination. A movie you wonder how it got sold and made but are glad it did. Maybe it had to be Australian. Hollywood would never have green-lighted this imaginative, intelligent film. The young pig of the movie’s title is alarmed at his discovery of what happens to pigs when they grow up. He decides to learn how to herd sheep to become a sheep pig too useful to have for dinner. Sophisticated animation for 1995 allows the animals to have conversations without looking cheesy. As his approving master would say, “That'll do, Pig.”
4 101 Dalmatians: 98%
Another Disney animated classic with one of the greatest movie villains ever. To achieve her evil desire for a Dalmatian fur coat, Cruella De Vil engineers the dognapping of the beautiful litter of pups belonging to Pongo and Perdita. The human police are baffled but Pongo’s dog pals pull off the rescue. Oops. Late again with the spoiler alert. As if. Not to be confused with the 1996 remake with Glenn Close.
3 Finding Nemo: 99%
Almost perfect. Great characters. The voice of Ellen DeGeneres. A lot of humor and drama. A clownfish (Albert Brooks) sets out to find his missing son, Nemo who has been fishnapped, ending up in a fish tank in a dentist’s office. With the help of Dory (DeGeneres), Marlin sets out on his epic trek to rescue his son. People magazine wrote, “Pixar's fourth feature for Disney is yet another miracle of computer animation, an instant classic."
2 Old Yeller: 100%
Another Disney winner. A perfect 100% rating though it also makes it on the list of Saddest Pet Deaths. A film still highly regarded, but definitely one you have to wonder if young viewers brought up on the manic computer generated movies like Madagascar and Rio would sit through. In any case, Yeller is Texan for yellow the color of his coat. A brave stray who saves the life of a boy lives swimmingly with the farm family until a fight with a wolf leaves him infected with rabies hence its place on the Sad Death list. But in weepy Lion King /Circle of Life fashion Young Yeller appears to make for a bittersweet ending.
1 National Velvet: 100%
Top picture on the merits of two Oscar wins. The first starring role for 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, also starring Oscar winning actor Mickey Rooney. Cynical ex-jockey Mike (Rooney) has ulterior motives as he signs on to help Velvet (Liz) train a wild horse for England’s Grand National Sweepstakes. But a bond forms between the two and what else could possibly happen but that Velvet wins but just this once, let the real ending go unspoiled.