Character Study - Talking Animals

Stories of fantasy and science fiction often utilize a speaking creature as a plot point. This tradition goes back to ancient mythology. However, there’s a distinction between the wise owl of the ages and Mr. Owl taking your sucker. When does the mystical being become the Disney sidekick and when are either appropriate?

First off, anyone who knows my Funko pop collection is aware of my weakness for Disney sidekicks (as well as Universal film monsters, but that’s a different story). But even the animators of these family movies have to make the decision between simply cute or human level communication. For example, in Moana and Tangled the animals show a higher level of emotion and comprehension without talking. This fits well into the fantasy realms in which the stories take place. They provide humor, warmth, and even some plot points, but do not detract or make the main ideas feel silly. Where as in Cinderella, the mice talk in ridiculous broken English, acting as both comic reliefs and talking heads for the audience.  

The trouble is when your creature serves no purpose other than aesthetic value. You think “Kids like spiders. I’m writing a kids book so I’ll add a spider.” Unless you’re Mercier Mayer, that isn’t really how it works. Character Osidekicks should always serve a role and have point. They should not just be an excuse to sell plush (I’m looking at you Barbie movies). 

A good modern example of an animal sidekick who cute, cuddly, and can be used as a plot device is Mouse, the Temple dog from Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files. He checks all of the boxes and I would totally buy him as a plush. 

In Defense of Cinderella

I’m going to start with both the most popular, most retold, and most criticized of all fairy tales.

Brief History: This is literally the oldest, most retold fairy tale. Every time and culture has a version of a tale which begins by making you feel the unfairness of an abused young woman’s life. Then, there is an opportunity for her to have a break from her awful situation, but can’t get to said event without some help (whether be fairy godmother, birds, or fish). In the end, her suffering ends with some violent end to her tormentors, the arrival of a wealthy male, or both.

Analysis: What I feel needs the most put into context is the constant belief that Cinderella was the victim of the story, a poor sap who could have rescued herself at any time and did not need a prince to do so. First of all, in the original versions of the tale, our heroine lives in times and societies which would not have given her opportunities to save herself without desperate measures. In the earliest versions, such as the Egyptian/Greek tale, she is slave or a captive. In the most popular versions, Grimm and Perrault, she lives in a world where a woman on her own would have had very few opportunities. If she had run away from her wicked family, she would have been at the mercy of expected roles for women of the time. And how nice would the ending of the story have been if she had joined a brothel or become a beggar? A true inspiration to little girls everywhere.

In most versions, she needs help, this true. But again, this is because of the world she lives in. Women could not help themselves, especially a woman of middle or higher classes. She accepts the help because without it her life can never change. Of course, the child of abuse, she is also willing to only take that help for one night. Only one night to make her life just a little better. In hindsight, she really should have been asking for a job in a shop or a house of her own complete with inheritance.

Lastly, and men I apologize in advance for this last part, the prince is not the hero. He is the booby prize. He is what is given as a way out and reward in the midst or her hard life.

Blame it on the Victorians: The focus on Cinderella’s domesticity and lack of complaint are very much Victorian attributes. Women were to go through life with the hand they had been dealt and if men chose to the change their fate, then so be it. But Heaven forbid that a woman attempt to change her own position or try to better her own life. This can be seen in other literature of the time like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Vanity Fair, where women who try to act in a way which was classified as “masculine” (as in they take charge and try to use whatever means necessary to better their lives) always meet horrible ends. Where as other women of these novels who are victims, innocents who are mistreated by society like Emily in David Copperfield or the sisters within Woman in White are conveniently rescued by circumstance.

Last thoughts: I confess, it’s all about the shoes.

*If you want know any of the places where some of my research comes from, just contact me.