Thursday, September 10, 2015

Between Entertainment and Education: the Disneynature’s Chimpanzee

by Sebastian Smoliński
Walt Disney Studios are best known for their animated movies, but equally interesting is the history of company’s efforts in the field of wildlife documentaries. Contemporary movies about nature owe a great deal to the patterns developed by Disney associates in the years 1948-1960. It was then when True-Life Adventures were produced – the first such a successful attempt to bring remote nature and animals on screen. Beginning with Seal Island and finishing with Jungle Cat (each movie was directed by the series veteran James Algar), True-Life Adventures won 8 Academy Awards (for best short and full-length documentaries) and were an enormous commercial hit. The series laid the foundations for “blue chip” wildlife films: the subgenre most popular in the United States and Great Britain (with dramatic narrative patterns and omnipresent voice-over).[1]
Walt Disney practically stopped making wildlife films in 1960, but in 2007 the label Disneynature emerged, which continues the studio’s traditions up to this day. One of the features made by Disneynature was Chimpanzee, directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield and released in 2012. The film is my primary focus in this paper, but I would like to describe its treatment of chimpanzees in reference to wildlife films genre in general. There are many cognitive limitations in Disney’s way of telling stories about animals, and it can be argued that they did not change over the decades. Thus, one can look at these “documentaries” (even this seemingly neutral category is problematic) as a compromise between entertainment and education: sometimes beneficial for both, but most often privileging the former. After all, movies produced by Disneynature are an all-family entertainment. They should reach a wide audience; their target is not an exclusive group of biologists and other scientists interested in the lives and habits of rare, endangered animals.
This need to make nature easily digestible influences Disney’s narratives on many levels. First of all, the films must be highly engaging and interesting, that is: “dramatic”. True-Life Adventures are well-known for their rendering of animals’ everyday life. Only the most vivid and striking episodes shot in the wild made it to the final movie. Moreover, despite the urge to present these films as “documentaries” and stories which truthfully portray the life of its non-human heroes, they were often staged and manipulated. The most famous example is the sequence with lemmings from James Algar’s White Wilderness from 1958. The film narrates a shocking episode with lemmings looking for new territory and shows their frenzied journey towards the sea. In the climax lemmings are shown jumping of the cliff into the water, to meet certain death. They behave as mindless, unstoppable creatures. Years later it turned out that the scene was faked; lemmings were thrown off the cliff by filmmakers who nonetheless called their work a True-Life Adventure.
Such treatment of animals is obviously unacceptable in moral terms. The lemmings were used to make the movie more dramatic and horrifying. This sequence from White Wilderness is credited as the chief source of the false myth that lemmings are “by nature” suicidal.[2] Although it may seem a radical example, it gives a good picture of the basic problem with Disney’s (and Disneynature’s) “documentaries”: they strive to be as thrilling as animated and live-action films. In Chimapanzee, the viewer is introduced to the fascinating world of African Great Apes, but the jungle presented is not geographically specific. As all Disney wildlife films, Chimpanzee supposedly takes place in a quasi-mythical rainforest, “barely touched by human kind”, as the narrator suggests (voice-over narration is the main device used by “blue chip” documentaries to construct meaning; it is constantly present and explains all the depicted actions). No sooner than during the end titles we realize that the footage was shot in Ivory Coast and Uganda (in addition, the aerial footage showing the landscape was captured in Gabon). How is it possible, then, that the movie tells a single, coherent story of two chimpanzee groups fighting each other? The manipulation is obvious, but can it be somehow justified?
Chimpanzee was coproduced by Jane Goodall Institute, and Jane Goodall herself is actively promoting the movie.[3] Her authority gives it a well-known expert’s seal of approval. However, this credit may be considered as undeserved, because the real scientific advisor was Christophe Boesch, the figure less recognizable by the popular audience. Yet, the film is far from a scientific exploration. It is a work of talented filmmakers who found breathtaking images and structured them into a partly fictionalized story. By “fiction” I mean the voice-over narration (read by Tim Allen). It transforms the here-and-now of chimpanzees’ contemporary life into a documentary fable. The voice-over is relatively simple and written in a clear manner. It significantly anthropomorphizes the chimpanzees by a way of attributing them human-like thoughts and language. The narrator also pretends to have access to animals’ inner monologues.
In one scene, the older chimpanzee takes a precious stone (used to crack nuts) which belonged to the younger one who went away. As a commentary to this scene, Tim Allen’s voice whispers on behalf of the older, lucky ape: “What an idiot…” Apart from a degree of insult implicit in this line, one may ask if such a commentary is necessary in the first place. I would argue that it is more than obsolete; it is the main way of distorting the representation of chimpanzee lives. The narrator tells a complicated story of two groups of chimpanzees fighting each other, of little Oscar’s mother’s death, and of his adoption by the alpha-male Freddy. The basic plot is perfectly understandable even without the annoying, infantile voice-over. The overabundance of off screen commentary leaves no space for the viewer to think, doubt, or contemplate. He or she is in a way forced to follow the narrator’s logic. The voice-over creates ready-made meanings, framing chimpanzees’ stories in an unscientific, anecdotal manner.
The second way of “fictionalizing” and dramatizing the daily life of Ivory Coast and Uganda’s chimpanzees is editing. The raw footage was, most probably, not as manipulated as in the case of White Wilderness and other True-Life Adventures. Nowadays, ethical standards and discourse on human-animal relations is considerably higher. However, in an editing room everything is possible. In Chimpanzee, pop songs were added to the shots of animals playing, resting, and having fun. Nicholas Hooper wrote the orchestral score which carefully follows animals’ movements, moods, and the film’s rhythm. Most importantly, distinct shots were put next to each other in order to achieve an illusion of a “natural”, true story. The editing helps to shape Chimpanzee’s basic structure. The film constructs the world of good and evil facing each other. Good are chimps close to Freddy, bad are those who stay with the “Scar” (this is the name of an alpha-male from the rival group). The whole conflict is simplified and shown in black-and-white terms. It allows the audience to identify with Freddy’s group and brings to the movie a lot of tension.
The editing and voice over narration are also used to construct controversial storyline. Contrary to the filmmakers’ claim that nothing was “scripted”, huge part of the plot was fabricated. In the article “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Jörg Blech described the manipulation invented by the creators in order to present a coherent and touching story.[4] The details were revealed by the film’s scientific consultant, the aforementioned Christophe Boesch from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Two main issues he discovered concern the “evil” gang of chimpanzees and the story of Oscar. As it turned out, the rival group was filmed in Uganda while principal photography (the story of “good” chimpanzees) was made in Ivory Coast. The two have never met each other and did not fight; the supposed confrontation was faked and smoothly incorporated into the plot.
The other lie on the filmmakers’ part concerns the adoption process. Freddy, indeed, took care of the orphaned Oscar, but the young chimp died seven months later. As one of the studies showed, this is, unfortunately, a typical fate of infant chimps who lost their parents. In consequence, and in order to preserve the beautiful, moving story, Oscar was played by five different chimpanzees. So, we should rather speak of the “Oscar” – a figure which is a mix of several animals playing the same character.
These two big changes made by Disney filmmakers are problematic, because they were not announced; Disneynature company actually wanted to hide the true story. It is, certainly, another example of a deceptive storyline in the studio’s long tradition of fictionalized wildlife films. However, the filmmakers should have treated both humans and chimpanzees with respect and openly speak about the non-documentary elements in their film. The movie should not be presented as having a “natural”, objective story when it is rather a product of people’s imagination. This undermines the film’s educational value and questions the filmmakers’ honesty.
Voice over narration, editing, and fictionalized story make Chimpanzee look and feel more like one of Disney’s animated movies. However, I would argue that there are several elements in it which deserve an acknowledgment. Firstly, Disney’s strategy of anthropomorphizing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it suggests that all animals are like humans: they have similar lifestyle, values, and needs – it deprives them of their distinctive character and describes in human-oriented categories. On the other hand, anthropomorphizing does grant animals some important qualities. For example, the narrator speaks of chimpanzees’ “cultural heritage”, describes their use of various tools, and sketches interpersonal relations within a group. In other words, the voice over narration convinces the viewers that chimpanzees have rich and diverse culture. Thus, Chimpanzee can have a noble educational role in informing people around the globe about the uniqueness and specificity of our Great Ape cousins.
Secondly, if the footage used is “real”, then the movie cannot be completely inaccurate. The story similar to that of “Oscar” and “Freddy” (who gave the chimps their names?) has indeed happened. The scientists were surprised that alpha-male adopted a young, orphan male chimp. This kind of behavior is unusual, but its elements were captured by camera and now may be discussed (and questioned) by everyone who watched the movie. Undoubtedly, “Oscar’s” story was framed to fit the narrow patterns of Disney’s “blue chip” wildlife documentaries (emotionally engaging, sentimental story about a suddenly awakened “parenthood”), but genre’s limitations allow the viewer to come closer to the elementary understating of chimpanzees. Watching “Oscar” and “Freddy” building a strong bond with each other, one can look at our close cousins as animals with their own strong emotions, personality, and ways of caring for each other. Under the straightforward surface of Chimpanzee, there lies a mystery of non-human love and commitment.

[1] For the short history of True-Life Adventures, see: Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 61-70.

[2] Chris Palmer, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2010), 38.
[3] For further information visit Jane Goodall Institute’s site. One of the news about Chimpanzee can be found here:
[4] Jörg Blech, “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Spiegel Online International, April 29, 2013,

Friday, August 14, 2015

It's a Man's World for Talking Dogs

Why is it that almost every voice-over for dogs in commercials for flea & tick medication, pet food, or treats is masculine?   

First, animals for whom we do not know the sex or gender we often presume to be male by default. Secondly, canines in particular tend to be masculinized. However, the predominance of masculine voices in media is well documented. Human or nonhuman, it really speaks to the patriarchal dominance of public spaces and experiences.1

Feminine voices only seem to be consistently ascribed to Nonhuman Animals on television in dairy commercials featuring farmed cows. These voices are often matronly, as well, likely in an attempt to frame the product as something that is nurturing, healthful, and familial.  

One exception can be found in the 2015 Yoplait commercial that gives a masculine French voice to an American female-bodied dairy cow. In fact, cows are frequently represented as male despite being female-bodied.2 This not only demonstrates a general ignorance about the American food system, but it also lends evidence to the male-as-default schema.

1. Voice-overs are also white-dominated, with few ethnic intonations represented.
2. Gender and sex are not one in the same of course, but human constructions of gender in the nonhuman world are even less consistent and tend to reflect gender hierarchies.

Ms. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is a Lecturer of Sociology with Monmouth University, a part-time Instructor of Sociology and Ph.D. candidate with Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Sexual Politics of Burger King Chicken Fries

Burger King's 2015 series of commercials for the relaunch of chicken fries depends on powerful stereotypes about women, homosexuality, and race to market their product to privilege: straight, white, masculinity.

In this commercial, a rooster is shown browsing a dating website. After snubbing a number of hens, he comes across BK Chicken Fries and suddenly becomes very excited. Healthy, living chickens are not seen as sexy, but dead, dismembered, disempowered "meat" is sexualized:

In another commercial, BK Chicken Fries are insinuated to be a product of a sexual encounter between hypermasculinized potato fries and a teenage hen. The possibility of his daughter dating the fries sends her rooster father into a rage. Again, powerful gender norms are reinforced in the negotiation of dating and sex, and "meat" is sexualized.

Interestingly, a couple of commercials also present "becoming meat" as a challenge to masculinity, loosely drawing on the "racial threat" in doing so.

In this commercial, a father comes home to his son who is bopping his head to hip hop music with several boxes of fries. Father rooster screams, "You wanna explain to me what these french fries are doing in my house?" His son replies, "Dad, come on they're my boys."  Based on the language and tone, the audience is encouraged to think about the chickens as white-identified and the fries as the non-white thugs. Says the rooster: "Listen, you are a chicken, stop acting like a side dish!" The audience could easily imagine the common trope, "You are white, stop acting Black!" Because "meat" is feminized and exists as a signal of disempowerment, to be meat is to be non-white.

In this ad, a chicken is hanging out on a stoop in an urban setting with some potato fries. His friends catch him in the act, who begin to deride him: "Hey chicken! You gotta lotta nerve for hangin' out with those french fries, man! Maybe you wanna be a french fry, huh?" By placing the chicken in a hyper-maculinized setting (and giving them non-white accents, presumably to increase their "street cred"), we are encouraged to think that there is something emasculating about associating with french fries. In this case, fries seem to represent persons with non-conforming genders or sexualities. The chicken in question must reassert his masculinity and challenges his friends with retorts: maybe he does want to be a french fry. Again, "meat" represents something that is less than masculine, and the rooster's association with it suggests he might be trans or gay. When his friends realize that he might actually want to be a french fry, they become very uncomfortable.

Noticeably, in none of the commercials are the chickens concerned in the slightest with being killed and eaten. Their reactions range from arousal or anger at threats to gender, race, and sexuality norms. So, while chickens are anthropomorphized and the audience is invited to view them as persons, the political imagination is immediately stifled when the systemic violence imposed on chickens becomes a joke.

Vegan feminists have theorized that "meat" is a highly masculinized product, as it entails extreme violence and requires the support of strong ideologies of patriarchal dominance. Advertisers often pull on these ideologies in order to appeal to a hierarchical society that values masculinity and devalues all that is feminized (including women, homosexuals, trans persons, people of color, and other animals). The Burger King chicken fries series is one of several fast food commercials that frame the consumption of their product as a "manly" act that will define privilege for the consumer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

35 Years Later, Infamous Flop Still Bad

This year marks the 35th anniversary of "Heaven's Gate," the infamous cinematic flop that bankrupted the United Artists studio. While there seems to be a growing urge among critics to rehabilitate the film's reputation, I must reluctantly side with the original consensus. Director Michael Chimino's vision of class struggle on the American West is an absolute snoozefest, despite increasingly topical subject matter. Moreover, animal abuse involved in production has been completely lost in discussion of the movie's legacy. Meanwhile, the film's narrative highlights the historic entanglement of violence against humans and animals.

It's hard to overemphasize what a critical and commercial disaster "Heaven's Gate" was upon its release in 1980. The film was initially provided a $12-million budget, but this grew to a then-astronomic total of $44 million, due to Cimino's endless retakes and insistence on historical authenticity, among other things. In the end, "Heaven's Gate" recouped a mere $3.4 million at the box office, while receiving a critical drubbing. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby likened it to a "forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room."

As mentioned, in recent years there has been a noticeable trend among critics to reevaluate the film more favorably. For instance, in 2011, Time Out London staff named it the 12th greatest western of all time. The following year, in the New York Times, Dennis Lim argued that "present-day viewers may well find that time has been kind to 'Heaven’s Gate,'" describing the film as an "elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West and the western." Writing for the Guardian in 2013, Peter Bradshaw called it a "spectacular western epic," both "colossally ambitious and mysteriously moving." Despite my sincere desire to join this positive reassessment, I can't honestly do so. Admittedly, I haven't seen Cimino's most recent, 216-minute cut, which the 2012 Venice Film director called an "absolute masterpiece." But if it's anything like the 219-minute version available on Amazon, I can say that though the movie is beautifully shot, it remains tremendously boring and overlong.

Further, the allegations of animal cruelty perpetrated during its production should not be forgotten or ignored. According to the American Humane Society's review of "Heaven's Gate," the movie "includes an actual cockfight, several horse trips, and a horse being blown up with a rider on its back. People who worked on the set verified more animal abuse, such as chickens being decapitated and steer being bled in order to use their blood to smear on the actors instead of using stage blood." Ultimately, this led the actors' guild and the producers' association to authorize the American Humane Society to monitor all animal use in film. But as a recent expose in the Hollywood Reporter demonstrated, the oversight is far from adequate. One hopes that if "Heaven's Gate" were made now it would rely solely on CGI animals.

What the film does offer is an illustration of how violence against humans and animals has historically overlapped. As sociologist David Nibert put it, "harms that humans have done to other animals — especially that harm generated by pastoralist and ranching practices that have culminated in contemporary factory-farming practices — have been a precondition for and have engendered large-scale violence against and injury to devalued humans." Primarily Nibert traces European colonization, showing how violence against indigenous populations was often made possible and motivated by animal exploitation. "Heaven's Gate," set in 1890s Wyoming and loosely based on the Johnson County War, follows a similar pattern, though the human victims in this case are European immigrants. In Cimino's film, rich cattle barons, whose wealth is generated through the murder of cows, kill those impoverished settlers who threaten their herds.

But this unintentional representation of a historic phenomenon is not nearly enough to save "Heaven's Gate." Thirty-five years after its release, don't fall for the revisionist hype. Because it's still a bad movie — purely on artistic terms. Worse than that, the production involved willful torture of animals. 

By Jon Hochschartner

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Goldfish Enrichment and Wildlife Rehabilitation

As a Virginia resident, I follow the "wildlife"1 rehabilitation efforts of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, efforts which often entail heartwarming stories about bear cub rescues (something I've always found ironic, as it is completely legal to shoot and kill bears in my state). There is also a lot of focus on saving eagles, and the Center's social media site often posts links to webcam feeds of animals healing and playing in their enclosures or inspiring videos of eagle releases. Today they posted a video of "fish enrichment" for eagles on the mend.

In the video, we see a crude plastic pool imprisoning several fishes2 with no filter, no pebbles, no air pump, and no plants or hiding places. The fishes seem to be treated as though they have no interests and they exist solely for the eagle to jump on, harass, terrify, and kill. The Wildlife Center posted the video as a cute update on the rehabilitation status of Buddy the eagle, but all I could see was the cruel and tortured existence of the goldfishes who have been completely objectified for the Virginian fetishization of eagles. Indeed, no commentator to date has expressed any unease with the well-being of the fishes on Facebook or YouTube. Viewers simply see this video as "cute" and entertaining.

It should go without saying, but the goldfish industry is one that imposes great amounts of suffering on fishes, and goldfishes are a highly sensitive animal who easily succumb to inferior habitats, water that has not been treated, and stressful conditions.

Like bears and eagles, goldfishes are sentient and social animals.

"Wildlife" rehabilitation reinforces the notion that some animals (usually charismatic megafauna) are more important than other animals (like goldfishes and the animals we kill for food, clothes, sport, and entertainment).  I've also seen the Wildlife Center asking Virginia "hunters" to please switch to non-lead ammunition, so that scavengers will not be poisoned by ingesting the corpses of deers, turkeys, and other animals who matter less. The notion that "hunting"3 might be a problem in itself is never addressed. Our thinking about other animals is quite compartmentalized. Compartmentalization helps us to reconcile our inherent empathy for other animals with our existence in a society that systemically exploits Nonhuman Animals for our benefit.

What's to be done with animals like eagles that need to consume the corpses of other animals to survive? I believe there are alternatives that can be explored. Goldfish "enrichment," however, is most certainly not a requirement for eagle rehabilitation and cannot be morally justified.

1. "Wildlife" is an objectifying pejorative best replaced with "free-living animals."
2. I avoid mass terms like "deer" or "turkey," which work to deindividualize some species.
3. "Hunting" is a euphemism for systemic violence against Nonhuman Animals.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What Can Buster Keaton Teach Us About Animal Abuse?

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Buster Keaton's pastoral comedy "Go West," which in its own clumsy way explores humanity's domination of animals. The 1925 silent film, that Pauline Kael described as one of Keaton's lesser works, and which I will momentarily spoil, centers on a lonesome ranch hand who befriends a cow. In a bizarrely-triumphant finale, he rescues her from death, while leading the rest of her herd to slaughter. I'm genuinely unsure what one is supposed to make of it.

It should be mentioned the production clearly treated its non-human cast in an egregious manner. Sadly, one doubts Keaton saw anything objectionable in this. After all, much of the abuse was likely standard practice in his era's flesh industry, which has since only grown more brutal. Further, Keaton himself was no stranger to rough treatment, having worked in vaudeville from a young age. As Roger Ebert noted, "by the time he was 3, [Keaton] was being thrown around the stage and into the orchestra pit, and his little suits even had a handle concealed at the waist, so [his father] Joe could sling him like luggage. Today this would be child abuse; then it was showbiz." Given his past and societal speciesism, one can easily imagine how Keaton might rationalize animal abuse for the sake of entertainment.

In "Go West" the ranch hand Keaton plays, called Friendless, removes a troublesome rock from the hoof of a cow he oversees. The animal, named Brown Eyes, subsequently saves him from a charging bull. So their bond begins to form. The movie's laughs are designed to come from Friendless' ineptitude at ranching, with his seeming inability to objectify Brown Eyes as a mere head of livestock perhaps being the prime example. When he sees the cow is slated to be painfully branded, Friendless attempts to hide her behind some shrubbery. After being discovered, he shaves the desired marking into her hair, creating the illusion of scorched tissue, which successfully fools the owner. Eventually, it's time for Brown Eyes to be shipped to slaughter. Keaton's character violently opposes this, drawing his pistol on another ranch hand and shoving his boss out of the way. But it's no use. The owner refuses Friendless' offer to purchase the animal with his remaining wages, saying, "You can't buy her, she'll bring twice that much."

The herd is then loaded onto a train for a Los Angeles stockyard. During the trip, the transport is attacked by bandits, leaving Keaton's character to manage the animals on his own. Upon arrival, he initially moves to escape with Brown Eyes, leaving the rest of the herd in confinement. But remembering his boss' financial insecurities, Friendless decides to bring the herd to the abattoir. When I first saw the film, I initially thought in releasing the animals from their boxcars he intended to bring them to freedom and safety. I was surprised when he ultimately brought them to the stockyard gates, for which the boss granted him ownership of Brown Eyes, something he could not have counted on.

So why did Keaton's character, despite apparently valuing one of their kind, choose to bring the animals to slaughter? Broadly I see three explanations. The first is he valued the entire herd, but saw their deaths as inevitable, and for whatever reason thought bringing them to the stockyards himself was the best option for all. The second is he only valued Brown Eyes, as an exception to his overarching speciesism. And the third is Keaton's character didn't transcend the anthropocentric paradigm at all, and rescued his chosen cow merely for the benefits she could provide him, in this case, companionship. Regardless, the film's cheery ending does not seem to match the facts of the situation. 

By Jon Hochschartner