Wells, Paul. 2008. The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
(Summarized by Kyle Sittig, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
Paul Wells starts his book with a reflection on his naïve former approach to animation. Having become interested in King Kong (1933) solely because of its revolutionary special effects, he was struck by a simple question posed by Kenneth Bernard: “How Big Is Kong’s Penis?”(1) The question immediately points to common readings of King Kong as a racial film, or a colonial film, or something else fundamentally human. The question serves as an odd rhetorical motif for a book that, otherwise, talks very little about Kong. But it sets out a central premise for his book, by helping explain Wells’ desire to read animated animals not as men, but as animals. In The Animated Bestiary: Animal, Cartoons, and Culture, Wells sets out to posit a theory of animal animation that, while drawing on historical and philosophical precedents, completely renegotiates the terms by which we view animals through animation. Rejecting simplistic accounts that brush animation off as always anthropocentric, Wells’ offers a framework that looks at the ways dichotomies like nature/culture and animal/human “never work in opposition” (48). Instead, “they only work in oscillation and tension” (48). While in terms of theory he draws on the usual suspects: Haraway, Berger, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Grandin, his analysis is able to address them, and build on them in a truly unique way.
Laying out some of these theoretical strands, Wells uses his introductory chapter to outline the ways animation addresses the problem of the animal in modernity. He lays out some of the discourse surrounding this problem, beginning with Akira Mizuta Lippit (whom he uses quite extensively throughout the book). Lippit argues “Modernity can be defined by the disappearance of wildlife from humanity’s habitat and by the reappearance of the same in humanity’s reflections upon itself: in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and technological media such as the telephone, film and radio” (9). This echoes other arguments Lippit has made about the reemergence of the animal as a sort of mourning for something forever lost to humans, most notably in his book Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Jonathan Burt argues, instead, that such an analysis is self-defeating, noting “The disengagement from the animal, its reduction to pure sign, reinforces at the conceptual level the effacement of the animal that has taken place in reality even whilst criticizing that process… These theories of loss, as a version of mourning, in fact turn out to be another flight from the animal” (10). Wells doesn’t necessarily take a side here, instead drawing from both sides. While there is truth in Lippit’s claim (and Wells clearly favors his work in this book), Burt introduces the idea Wells draws on to argue for the fluidity and dynamism of animated animals. This lays the foundation for Wells’ continued fascination with the “animal-in-the-making,” through the process of metamorphosis.
The concept of metamorphosis works to address the naturalcultural, a term Wells borrows from Donna Haraway. Wells’ engagement with Haraway starts with an overview of her thoughts on taxidermy. In contention with the taxidermists themselves, who saw taxidermy as a preservation of wildness, Haraway addresses how they are “re-presented; their realism enhanced by the act of conscious presentation as a vision of nature, informed by an authored idea about nature” (16). This view of the natural world is unreal and sanitized, according to Haraway, who challenges the claims of objectivity made of photography and sculpture (traditions she sees in alliance with taxidermy). She proposes the naturalcultural as a view of the nature/culture divide in accordance with studies of gender and race, noting the “asymmetrical power-saturated, symbolic, material, and social relationship that is constituted and sustained – or not – in heterogeneous naturalcultural practice, such as primate studies” (17). Wells uses this as a springboard for his most convincing case for the use of animation, as something that embodies metamorphosis on multiple levels:
Essentially, animation best identifies and illustrates – often literally in the processes of metamorphosis and condensation – codes and conditions “in-the-making,” and best exemplifies the “mixed traffic” of cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary ideas and representational form. It resists any predetermined social and cultural construction, constantly pointing up – again, often literally – its engagement with pre-constituted formulations and its interpretations of them. This interpretation is fundamentally related to the aesthetic distinctiveness of all animated phenomena, and the enabling difference in the variety of techniques and approaches that can be employed (17).
The animal itself and animal itself are both continuously fluctuating entities that work together in interesting ways to address the naturalcultural. Wells even takes this one step further, in his brief discussion of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal. Becoming-animal can be hard to get a pulse on, as it seems to be subtly re-interpreted by many different scholars, but Wells take is one of the more interesting I’ve read. He uses it to reference the engagement the artist has with the naturalcultural and the inter-mingling of worlds inherent to animating animals. He argues “It effectively defines the artist engaging with or depicting the animal as subject to a transcendent empathy that enables the essence of the animal to find representation outside orthodox social categories or literal artistic models” (8). Throughout the book he repeatedly uses examples of animators observing animal traits and seeing how those can be used effectively in animation, showing the way animator, animation, and animal are intimately bound. The final premise he addresses in his introduction is what he terms “The Madagascar Problem.” The Madagascar problem problematizes animated films that do not have a logical consistency to their presentation of nature/culture, human/animal, etc. This is named for the film Madagascar, in which Wells finds many problematic contradictions between its two halves.
In the first chapter, Wells begins to unpack the theoretical underpinnings of a framework he calls “Bestial Ambivalence.” Bestial Ambivalence is a paradigm that describes the multifaceted ways animated animals are in operation. Instead of looking at them as purely anthropomorphized or purely animal, he breaks animated animals down into four representations that they consistently fluctuate between: Pure Animal, Aspirational Human, Critical Human, and Hybrid-Humanimal. The Pure Animal is when the image on screen acts in ways that are consistent with what we observe of animals in nature. The Aspirational Human is a traditionally anthropomorphized side of the animal, which is used to embody “favorable human qualities” (52). The critical human is anthropomorphized but from another perspective that makes a conscious preference of the idea of wildness over civilization. And the Hybrid-Humanimal is draws a metaphorical connection between systems in place in both the human and animal world. The first example of the way these modes of representation are in a constant state of flux is through the character of Shere Khan from Disney’s The Jungle Book. Wells gives useful examples of Shere Khan’s negotiation with these boundaries:
At the level of pure animal, Shere Khan the tiger stalks a deer and fights a bear for food and territory. In the “aspirational human context, the tiger’s character is used as a tool by which to demonstrate favorable human qualities and heroic motifs, and in this case would be measured by Shere Khan’s ability to negotiate, behave with dignity, and exercise control. This is opposed to the “critical human” context in which the animal character is used to critique humankind, and as such Shere Khan’s traits in this are measured by his more pronounced resentment of humankind’s imposition on the natural order and his aggressive pursuit of Mowgli. The final context – the hybrid “humanimality”… evolved to show when a conceptual idea is shared by the parallel terms that have evolved to define and explain both the human and animal world. In this case, there is a parallel in the power and agency a tiger wields within the animal kingdom, and how power and elite culture is recognized in (Western/English) society. For Shere Khan, this is demonstrable in the juxtaposition of being an English aristocrat and holding a position of superiority in the assumed great chain of being within the animal kingdom. (52)
This paradigm is, in my opinion, the most substantial contribution of this book. Wells immediately extends it to his discussion of Animal Farm, showing how it can be used in a political framework to unexpected effect. Animal Farm, as a narrative, is best known for its sharp political satire on the dangers of revolution and its critique of Stalinism. The book itself is quite anthropomorphized. What Wells draws attention to is the way Halas and Batchelor could use the mode of animation to show pure animality in a way that actually enhanced the political subject matter. The primary challenge Halas and Batchelor faced was how to make a serious political satire with animated characters, without sentimentalizing them. This is primarily achieved through various “long nondialogue sequences that merely privileged animal movement, using the kind of empathetic anthropomorphism suggested by Grandin” (56). Furthermore, “An animal anthem was constructed only from animal sounds” (56). This technique, however, possibly reaches its affective crescendo when some of the animals mourn at the death of Boxer, a moment that Wells claims mirrors actual observed patterns of animal mourning. Such use of the pure animal culminates in one of Wells’ secondary theses: that animal subjects can help navigate political issues in a more palatable context, resulting, however, in a greater emotional shock. As an example, he puts forth images of carcasses in an abattoir, as well as scenes of animal death to use “incongruities of recognizable horrors of some political realities,” in juxtaposition with the “apparent innocence of the surrounding frame,” making them “more startling” (57).
In Chapter 2 sees an expansion of this framework through additional examples. Doing this, he finds one of his main focuses in defending Disney against common charges of “Disneyfication” and pure anthropomorphism. But first he looks at some of the political expressions of animation, expanding on the role of animation in modernism. The motion of animation, itself, is a sign of social change. And this is made stronger, according to Wells, with animals. The concept of “metamorphosis” works not just as a vocabulary for describing the workings of evolution, but describes the oscillatory nature of animation that allowed animated animals to “facilitate fluid, unusual, complex narratives that represented the new psychology of the modern age” (65). Wells goes on to say “Crucially, this mean that animation could embrace radical perspectives and challenge reactionary views of the animal by using story telling forms, like the fairytale, that had essentially achieved this in previous occasions” (65). In this way, the emergence of the animated animal in modernity, has as much to say about problems directly related to animals as it does about purely human politics. Wells uses this as a springboard for a discussion on the use of gender in cartoons, one of many sites in which metamorphosis holds radical possibilities. Bringing up Bugs Bunny, an oft cited example of radical performance of sexuality and gender in cartoons, Wells notes how the “performance of identity [is a] vehicle to play with contemporary issues” (66). Bugs Bunny can often be seen crossdressing, appropriating other cultures, and parodying genre archetypes, leading to an identity fluidity that is scarcely seen elsewhere. Wells aims to take this one step further and look at “how the status of the animal affects this identity” (66). Interestingly, exploring gender through animals (or any other socially constructed concept) causes a ripple effect of representation, as anthropocentrism is, essentially, being used to create a fiction of a fiction:
Kevin Sandler has suggested that “gender imitation in animal characters does not copy that which is prior in humans since gender is already a fiction; it copies what is already assumed to exist in humans. Anthropomorphism can be viewed, then as an imitation of an imitation of an imitation, a copy if a copy if a copy. By repeating this imitation, the animators create the illusion of a talking gendered animal while reproducing the illusion of gender itself. Anthropomorphism reiterates the schema of gendered bodies as fact, not fiction, by its imitative nature” (66).
Wells takes this as just one way in which the phenomenological nature of animals, through animation, can lead to a variety of disparate meanings, and extends it to comment on the interpretive power of animation.
Animation, however, does not always explore these boundaries through anthropomorphism. Animal traits can also be put on humans. In Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbes’s animated short film When the Day Breaks, humanoid figures are given animal heads, and otherwise go the day in a very “human” way. Wells uses this film to introduce the concepts of theriomorphism and therioanthropism. According to the OED definitions of these words, a theriomorphic image is when someone is presented as “having the form of a beast” (71). On the contrary, the therianthropic are those images that combine “the form of a beast with that of a man” (71). According to Wells, “The theriomorphic image in animation can wholly preserve the nature of the beast - the pure animal – while still invoking human characteristics, and the therianthropic image can be a conventional representation in animation, largely through the ways the design and execution of a character occurs” (71). Wells sees this as a useful way of exploring the power of a variety of seemingly unrelated “social, cultural, personal, or phenomenological aspects of existence,” which is exactly what Tilby and Forbes were aiming for with When the Day Breaks. It combines aspects of humanity that are cultural and commercial – like our “shopping lists” – and attempting to show how they are intimately bound up with our physical being, even down to the cellular level. The naturalculture are explored through a mixture of mundane humanness and animal movements. Extending this further, Wells looks at Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, attempting to show how the theriomorphic and the theriantropic work in tandem, metamorphically, and “facilitates the terms and conditions of bestial ambivalence” (73). Beauty and the Beast’s Beast, through his representation, at once explores the surreal and monstrous figure of the minotaur, and more notably, the animal American buffalo. In carrying out this multitude of meanings, the figure of the Beast “plays out the very contradictions inherent in all depictions of the animated creature. The pure animal discourse is enhanced by looking at the Beast as the last of a tragically dying breed, which, in the context of the hybrid-humanimal, is juxtaposed against the trappings of bourgeois culture and alienation in other sense of the word. It is a loneliness enhanced by an oscillation of meaning. The recognition of loss working through multiple layers of this story, particularly applied to the recognition of lost animals, is part of the “moral ecology… [that] underpins the naturalcultural…” (76). This is how Wells leads into his defense of Disney, as proof that their narratives do not merely trivialize the animal, and it is one of his strongest points in the book.
In chapter 3, Wells examines some other animators, particularly Tex Avery, to point out some other ways that bestial ambivalence is cleverly used by animators. Avery’s approach is centered more around creating gags, and Wells breaks this down into a few tables. A popular approach to making something funny, is by looking at the multiple meanings and associations that words can have. This is the essence of pun-making. He draws out a chart based on an approach an animator named Stan Hayward came up with. In one column, you have “classifications” and in the other you have “associations.” For example, if you are looking at a horse, one of your classifications might be “A four-legged animal,” making your association “Other four-legged animals, I,e, cows and sheep” (107). You may also look at the horse as a “mode of transport,” in which case other modes of transport, organic or inorganic, would be your associations (107). You can go on and on; and by closely looking at these classifications and associations, we begin to see how bestial ambivalence is used to bridge the gap between the essence of an animal and the ways we look at them through animation. He then mentions another chart based on observations by Stuart Sumida and Bill Weisenhofer, that is useful for reading how creature and behavior work together. Each column can be either filled with “real” or “fantastic.” For example, an example of a real creature with fantastic behavior would be Scooby Doo, whereas Shrek would exemplify a fantastic creature with fantastic behavior (112). This allows us to analyze the internal logic of animated films. Different codes are allowable through each combination, showing us another method to break down strategies of bestial ambivalence. Through the example of Tarzan, a little later in the chapter, Wells shows how even humans can be animal in behavior and take part in the paradigm of bestial ambivalence, arguing that Tarzan’s narrative themes of the human/animal and nature/culture divide are enhanced visually. Chapter 4, with the subheading “Performance, Philosophy, Tradition,” looks back on some of the philosophical possibilities of bestial ambivalence. Beginning with some of the most famously problematic beliefs about animals put forth by Heidegger, Kant, Burke, Descartes, and others, Wells works his way to a framework that categorizes animated animals as divine, demonic, satiric, or political. These types, again, work through a process of metamorphosis and consistent oscillation. The divine animal remains playful regarding the animal, allowing it to play off its role as a religious/spiritual cultural figure. This operates through common totemic modes of thought, but also is often seen in alliance with older philosophical ideas that demarcate the human and the animal based on awareness of death (a paradigm that Lippet argues puts the animal in a state of “perpetual existence” (145)). A multitude of beliefs about the animal are in conversation with each other through the divine animal, however, allowing it to resist identification in interesting ways. It is in a “state of annulment yet fulfillment, resistance yet resolution, identification and absence…” (157). The demonic animal are “demonized in a spirit of creating the typical anarchy in archetypal chase and conflict cartoons…” (157), but their possibilities go much beyond this. This is sometimes used to align political motives with animals (a snake appearing as a Nazi), but also works through bestial ambivalent to challenge dominant cultural representations. Wells uses a film called The Wild to explore how bestial ambivalence can be used to turn the relationship between predator and prey on its head. While the food chain is commonly used to reflect a sort of class stratification in animated film, in this film the demonic animal is the wildebeest to the protagonist lions. Against the lions, the wildebeests take on a demonic role, becoming carnivores, in an attempt to overthrow the established order. This shows the fragile nature of the hierarchy established by the food chain (as well as human hierarchies that are reflected by it). Satiric animals are used to poke fun and call back to earlier engagements with Bugs Bunny and similar characters that Wells has explored. He discusses how this satire can range from the oscillatory challenging of gender, to political satires. Using Chicken Run as an example, he shows how these animations can fill a dual political purpose. Essentially mimicking a holocaust survival narrative, replacing concentration camps with oppressive chicken farms, Chicken Run simultaneously raises questions about human internment and the consequences of war, while acting as a protest piece on factory farming. Finally, political animals are those whose representations became symbols of political systems, becoming “the effective short-cuts by which power and ideology might be grasped and understood by a mass audience…” (169). An example of this are depictions of the British bulldog that can be subverted in their representation, from representing the majesty of the British Empire to satiric caricatures that use pure animality to protest colonialism (171).
In his concluding chapter, Wells reflects on some of the arguments he has made throughout the book, re-introduces the naturalcultural, and re-states the usefulness of his bestial ambivalence model for approaching it. He eventually returns to Kong, not so much offering an end-all-be-all interpretation of the character, but using him as an example of the tension between worlds and species that he is in a constant state of negotiation with. Finally, he ends by using Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke and Wladyslaw Starewicz’s A Cameraman’s Revenge to question whether or not even his oscillating framework is applicable across cultural lines, where nature takes on different meanings.
The Animated Bestiary, nearly a decade old at this point, remains essential reading for any scholar of Animal Studies interested in visual culture. I would be interested to see what can be garnered for those who explore non-animated animal narratives, particularly how the affective turn would address some of the philosophical claims bestial ambivalence leads to.