Many a movie turns wild creatures into cute critters MILD KINGDOM

July 31, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

We love them. We fear them. We cuddle them. We feed them. We eat them.

Animals. Our strange, lovable and sometimes unknowable fellow inhabitants on this planet, and the subject of oh so many movies, including quite a few this summer. Already "The Lion King," "Lassie" and "Black Beauty" have opened; soon, something called "Andre" arrives, with a new critter to adore: a seal. Arf, arf.

And this boomlet merely follows on the heels of last summer, when "Free Willy" (good animal) and "Jurassic Park" (bad animal) were all the rage. The films are typically straightforward, sentimentalized examples of anthropomorphism -- in which a human personality is projected upon a creature, human motivations ascribed to its behavior, and its emotions seen as expressions of human emotions. The implication is straight PETA: A rat is a cat is a dog is a boy. Animals are but extensions of the human psyche, little, furry, four-legged human beings.

This has not always been the case. Our feelings about animals have undergone considerable revision in the past several decades. Indeed, one of the vanished genres of American movie-making is the hunting movie, in which heroic Westerners or big-game hunters saw themselves as predators who tested their manhood by going with their big-bore rifles after animals. But nobody has done an authentic hunting movie in at least three decades, as attitudes about this form of recreation have changed utterly and a sense of the limits of the game population has entered the general consciousness.

The last of the hunting movies arrived in the '50s, in the days when Winchester regularly took out ads in Time magazine touting its Model 70 game-getter. ("You can tell the man who owns a Winchester," the ad copy ran.) There was "Track of the Cat" (1954), in which a mountain lion picked off members of a farm family one by one, like a sniper, until Robert Mitchum picked him off. In 1956, there was a Victor Mature adventure flick called "Safari," in which the heroic Westerners were not only beset by lions and tigers and giraffes but also by Mau Mau. Then, of course, there were the two descended from the canon of classic Hemingway, "The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber" (renamed "The MacComber Affair," which arrived early, in 1946) and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), both starring Gregory Peck and both set against the backdrop of refined, expensive, aristocratic African-plains hunting as it was practiced until black nationalism and anti-colonialism changed all that, permanently.

In such films, which were casually racist as well as uncritical endorsements of the hunting ethic, the hero was inevitably the tough, experienced "white hunter" -- that is, the hardy soul who suavely guided the rich boy to the game and backed him up if he panicked -- and who usually treated memsahib to a toss in the hay as well. He was usually British, handsome and looked great in those Abercrombie & Fitch safari jackets with the cartridges that looked like small missiles in loops on his manly chest.

Though the movies defined heroism as staying cool in the face of charging game, a subtle contempt for the debauched, rich clients almost always ran through them: The men were always swine, the women decadent. But it ended quickly enough. By the time that Sydney Pollack made "Out of Africa" in 1983, set in the heart of hunting culture (Kenya in the '20s), among people who killed animals as routinely as they brushed their teeth and almost as frequently, the hunting and killing was completely circumspect. In fact, Robert Redford, as the professional hunter Denys Finch Hatton, only shoots one animal, and that's in "self-defense": A charging cheetah had to be put down, or Hollywood would lose its most bankable leading man.

Although the hunting movies were politically incorrect and perhaps monstrous in hindsight in their endorsement of recreational killing without ecological consequences, it's also true that with their demise went the last vestiges of honest portrayal of animal behavior. The cheetah charged Redford not because it was bad or good, but because it was a cheetah. That's how cheetahs hunt: the charge, the blast of acceleration, to bring down the prey. That was its nature. The poor cheetah just didn't notice the .416 Mauser in Bob's hands.

Now there's no check on anthropomorphism. Both "The Lion King" and "Lassie" are zealous in this faith, reiterating a line that runs back through the cinema of animals for decades, all the way to Rin Tin Tin, the original hero dog of the West. "The Lion King" goes so far as to imprint the most sophisticated of all human artifices -- Shakespeare's "Hamlet," no less -- on the behavior of a pride of lions in a curiously humanless Africa.

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