Animated films may often appear to primarily appeal to children and to younger audiences in general, yet people of all ages should be able to glean something from those films listed below (and many more not named here). Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — whose 2022 stop-motion version of “Pinocchio” is featured here — said it best when he noted that “animation is cinema.” And, sometimes, the best cinema can teach us valuable lessons; such is the case with the 10 films listed below, which all remind us to be kind to animals. A few of the films may also convince people to go vegan or vegetarian, or to at least think twice before consuming animal products. Films like “Bambi” and “The Fox and the Hound” are actively anti-hunting, “Ferdinand the Bull” and “Ferdinand” show the dangers of bullfighting, and del Toro’s Pinocchio depicts how monkeys are treated in circuses.
“Bambi,” which was released by Disney in 1942 and directed by David Hand, is only 70 minutes long, yet quickly became a beloved classic about an orphaned white-tailed deer named Bambi and the various animal friends he encounters. The film is actually based on the 1923 novel of the same name by Felix Salten, who was actually a hunter — not necessarily someone you’d expect to write a story that seems to be inherently anti-hunting. “Bambi” is also, in a way, a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to be about a young male deer. We see young Bambi experience the harsh realities and the wonderful truths of his life in the woods. Kids and adults alike should be able to relate to what this young fawn is going through, especially if they’ve lost someone close to them — as ends up happening to Bambi. He befriends a number of animals, including Flower the skunk, Thumper the pink-nosed rabbit, and his fellow deer and future mate, Faline. Bambi lives with his mother, who is unnamed and with whom he becomes close, so when she is shot and killed by a hunter, he is understandably distraught. Fortunately, his father — known as the Great Prince, the protector of the woodland area — saves Bambi and his friends. There are numerous other species of animals present in the film, including various amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles.
The animals simply refer to the human hunter as “Man,” thereby implying that “mankind” can be cruel to animals. Even though the film is suitable for children and is aimed at a very young audience, “Bambi” can be understandably difficult to watch at times, particularly in regard to hunting and death; although, to the film’s credit, Bambi’s mom’s death occurs offscreen. The movie has emotionally affected many viewers, with Sir Paul McCartney stating that the shooting (and subsequent death) of Bambi’s mother is what initially got him invested in Animal rights. Fortunately, even though Bambi is shot by “Man,” he survives, which is a testament to the strength and courage of the character and to animals in general. The animals in the film are generally kind to one another, with the exception of Bambi’s fellow stag Ronno, who really only fights Bambi to win Faline’s love. “Bambi” also highlights the myriad of animals who live in the woods, giving them unique personalities and relationships with one another. In this film, we only see non-human animals onscreen, and humans are presented as villains, as they are the ones causing devastation and destruction to animals and their habitats. “Bambi” was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Music Score, Best Song (for “Love is a Song”), and Best Sound. However, the movie received mixed reviews upon its release, with some pondering the need for such a dramatization of these animals’ lives. Some critics also expressed disappointment at the lack of fantastical elements, even though talking and singing animals are fairly fantastical. Over the years, though, many people have praised “Bambi” and called it one of the greatest animated films ever made.
2. Charlotte’s Web
1973’s “Charlotte Web” is an animated adaptation of the 1952 book of the same name by E.B. White, and is about Wilbur, a farm pig who’s concerned about becoming dinner. Fortunately, his friend Charlotte, a spider, weaves specific words into her web to convince the farmer that this pig is too special and interesting to kill. Charlotte’s weavings describe Wilbur as being “some pig” and “terrific,” which ends up helping him gain the attention of many humans, who come to admire and celebrate him. Reviews for the film were mainly positive, although some claimed that this adaptation was perhaps too faithful to the book and that the songs were hardly revelatory. And, yet, despite the film’s frequently cheery nature, one critic noted that “no attempt has been made to soften the existential sadness at the story’s core.” Even though Wilbur is able to escape death via humans, he watches his best friend, Charlotte, die after laying hundreds of eggs.
“Charlotte’s Web” gives viewers the chance to get to really know Wilbur, so that they love and care about him, as well as his relationship with Charlotte. The film reminds people that, like humans, animals have feelings and that their lives are no less important than humans’ lives. Wilbur feels a profound sense of isolation and even loneliness before he meets Charlotte, a feeling that is most likely relatable to many. It’s also a story about inter-species friendship, as two completely different species — pig and spider — with seemingly little to nothing in common are able to connect and help each other. “Charlotte’s Web,” like “Bambi,” is in a way a coming-of-age film that just so happens to be about a pig. At his new barn, Wilbur struggles with changes both internally and externally, and slowly but surely his self-confidence increases as he matures and makes friends with animals like Charlotte and Templeton, a selfish but resourceful rat.
Unlike in “Bambi” and in other films on this list, not all of the humans depicted in “Charlotte’s Web” are cruel; in fact, on the farm where Wilbur is born — as the runt of his litter — the farmer’s daughter, Fern, is able to convince him not to kill the piglet. But, when he ends up at Fern’s uncle’s farm, that’s where he is only able to escape death thanks to Charlotte’s help and the gullibility of humans. It is also thanks to Wilbur’s fellow animals’ assistance that he is able to have a happy ending, as it is decided that Wilbur is such a miracle of a pig that he will be allowed to “live to a ripe old age.” Of course, most farmed pigs are never given this opportunity, as many are killed when they are quite young. “Charlotte’s Web” has inspired many people worldwide to look more closely at animals used for food.
3. Chicken Run
Source: Jake Smith/Youtube
2000’s “Chicken Run” is one of the most obvious pro-Animal rights films on this list, as the chickens are trying to escape the terrible conditions of the farm where they will eventually be killed and eaten. Their plight is relatable, as most people — and animals — would do anything to avoid being killed and to live their lives free from home and without the fear of being murdered. This stop-motion animated film is about a group of farm chickens who work with Rocky Rhodes, an American rooster who crash lands at the farm, in hopes of avoiding the terrible fate of becoming meat pies. While the chickens live on an egg farm, the animals are treated like prisoners, as the cruel farmers the Tweedys will kill and then eat chickens unable to lay eggs. Before Rocky’s presence, the chickens — led by a hen named Ginger — have been trying and failing to escape, continually getting caught. The film’s sequel, “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget,” is set to be released on Netflix in December of this year.
There’s no subtlety when it comes to the cruelty of humans in this film, and Mrs. Tweedy, in particular, is pure evil. When her husband suggests that the chickens might be planning a revolt, she dismisses the notion and is merely concerned with money. She soon decides to transition their egg business to a chicken meat pie business, which makes the chickens’ fate all the more worrisome and the need to escape more pressing. Fortunately, there’s some justice when the chickens finally fight back at the end — led by Rocky and Ginger — and they attack Mr. Tweedy, leaving him bound and gagged. Later, Mrs. Tweedy is crushed by the barn door, and the chickens are able to escape to safety. This is probably as much of a relief to the viewer as it is to the characters, considering how vile Mrs. Tweedy is; she clearly despises the chickens, viewing them as “wretched animals only useful for monetary gain via vile exploitation.” Yet, we soon discover that these animals are living beings with thoughts, feelings, and unique personalities.
Critical response was quite high, with the film receiving a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The late critic Roger Ebert, in his review, mentioned how the film “uses animals as surrogates for our hopes and fears.” We’re all evidently afraid of death and have various hopes and dreams similar to what the chickens possess. Yet, for them, their daily lives consist of attempting to evade death. “This movie about chickens,” Ebert said, “is more human than many formula comedies.” It’s important to note, though, that despite the slapstick humor and consistent amusement in “Chicken Run,” the film does not shy away from the harsh treatment of the chickens: we see a chicken’s head getting chopped off, followed by the other chickens’ reactions to the sound of the axe, and then chicken bones. This family-friendly film may not be suitable for younger children, as there are a few scenes (including the aforementioned one) that may be traumatizing; however, despite what the animals undergo throughout the film, there is the theme of animal liberation. In addition, “Chicken Run” satirizes the hideous and false advertising of the egg, dairy, and meat industries, via Mrs. Tweedy’s advertising of the meat pies as well as Rocky’s circus poster. It also becomes evident that Rocky despises captivity just as much as the farm chickens despise their situation; animals don’t want to be forced to entertain humans. What is more, Mr. Tweedy’s treatment of the chickens — under his wife’s command — mirrors the way in which slaughterhouse workers treat the animals, well before they are killed. In all, “Chicken Run” is one of the best films about animal liberation, mainly because it doesn’t lecture its audience on the experiences of animals on farms and in captivity. Rather, it intersperses these terrifying moments with pure comedy, charm, and heart.
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There are a couple of different iterations of the story of Ferdinand the Bull: the Oscar-winning animated short film, 1938’s “Ferdinand the Bull,” and 2017’s “Ferdinand,” which was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Both films — which are based on the classic children’s book The Story of Ferdinand — are about a happy bull who is all about peace and kindness; he regularly sniffs flowers and stops for bunnies. After he is taken from his family by men who want him to be a bullfighter, he tries to escape this terrible predicament. “Ferdinand” received decent reviews, obtaining a 72% score on Rotten Tomatoes, although some critics claimed the story was stretched too far and that the film was not well-executed. However, one critic noted that Ferdinand is the kind of character needed in the world, a “rare breed of bovine who takes a stand against aggression, competitive rivalry. and conforming to the expectations of others.” Both films evidently contain the message of “don’t judge a bull by its horns,” meaning that we shouldn’t assume that any one individual person or animal should or will act a certain way based on what (or who) they are.
Bullfighting is inherently cruel, as bulls — and sometimes horses — are forced to fight and are tortured for entertainment. Fortunately, Ferdinand gets a happy ending, but most bulls in the bullfighting industry will never be that lucky. In the story, Ferdinand is shown as being the odd one among his fellow bulls, as the others want to get picked for bullfighting. Of course, none of these animals would willingly put themselves in that kind of danger. At one point, we see Ferdinand’s friend and fellow bullfighter Guapo get sent to the slaughterhouse after he fainted in the ring. This is a sad fact for many animals who are forced to fight; even if they are not killed by matadors, they could very well be killed for meat. In the 2017 film, when Ferdinand realizes that he’s going to die no matter what happens, he warns his friends and ends up rescuing both Guapo and his other friend, Valiente, from the slaughterhouse. There are plenty of instances of cows escaping slaughterhouses, though if they are captured, they are unlikely to be sent somewhere safe, like a farm sanctuary.
5. Finding Nemo
Source: Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers/Youtube
“Finding Nemo,” the 2003 Oscar-winning Disney-Pixar animated film featuring such quotable lines as “just keep swimming,” is a prime example of a film that reminds us to be kind to animals. It certainly helps that it is a fairly accurate depiction of ocean life, despite the fact that it features talking animals. The physical appearances of the fish — especially the clownfish — are accurate, even if the behavioral depictions of aquatic life aren’t always exactly how they (supposedly) are. So, in addition to providing a heartwarming, oftentimes funny, and even sad story, “Finding Nemo” is a great educational tool for children and adults alike. In this film and its sequel, “Finding Dory,” we are introduced to many diverse, interesting sea creatures who inhabit the Great Barrier Reef. “Finding Nemo” makes it a point to showcase the similarities between humans and animals, highlighting the stressful and fearful feelings of fish who are stuck in tanks or may be killed for food. We see how fish like Dory, Marlin, Nemo, and the fish Nemo meets at the dentist’s office struggle to survive and deal with a myriad of emotions similar to those that humans experience.
Perhaps the most obviously pro-vegan scenes involve typically predatory sharks who have decided to stop eating fish: at a meeting where they bring Marlin and Dory, they assert that “fish are friends, not food.” And, even though sharks are carnivores by nature and probably could not survive without their regular diet of fish, it sends a great message to audiences that being friends with animals — and showing kindness toward them — is better than treating them terribly and, at times, eating them. After the release of “Finding Nemo,” animal rights activists used the film as a way to discourage children from eating fish; in fact, Disney gave PETA permission to use “fish are friends, not food” in literature and in other marketing materials. A PETA spokesperson said that they hoped the film would teach kids “that fish belong in the ocean and not on dinner plates.”
“Finding Nemo” also shows us the problems associated with poaching, which is what we see the Australian dentist, Dr. Sherman, doing when he captures Nemo from his home and inserts him into the tank at his office. As opposed to recreational scuba diving, which is typically harmless to marine life, poaching disrupts marine life, especially in an area like the Great Barrier Reef which is replete with endangered species and has been dealt a terrible blow as a result of Climate change. Just as the dentist didn’t realize he was separating Nemo from his father, humans may not realize — or even care — that taking fish from their aquatic homes is unnatural and inexcusable. Unfortunately, some people took the film the wrong way, leading to “environmental devastation for the clownfish.” Because more people wanted tropical fish in their aquariums, certain species in the Great Barrier Reef region saw a severe drop in population. Also, well-meaning people set their fish free — but in the wrong ocean, thereby interfering with marine ecosystems. In addition, perhaps most distressing of all is the fact that seafood restaurants named “Frying Nemo” popped up, featuring a scared-looking Nemo “being fried on a pan.”
6. The Fox and the Hound
Source: Trailer Chan/Youtube
Like “Bambi,” 1981’s “The Fox and the Hound” showcases the horrors of hunting and how it affects all animals involved. Copper the hound dog and Tod the red fox become friends, even though society wants them to be enemies. The animated film — produced by Disney — is based on Daniel P. Mannix’s 1967 novel of the same name. These two animals have to work hard to maintain their friendship, as they deal with the pressures of society, as well as their own natural instincts. Critics were fairly mixed when the film was released, with one reviewer claiming that the film “breaks no ground whatsoever.” He also claimed that the animals we meet are portrayed as “more anthropomorphic than the humans” who we see on occasion, although this can be said about a number of similar animated films, such as “Bambi.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film for being different from previous Disney animated films, calling it a “thoughtful meditation on how society determines our behavior.” This can be directly related to how society typically dictates that certain animals are pets, whereas others can be hunted, killed, and/or eaten.
“The Fox and the Hound” does contain some violence towards animals, although some of it is accidental; for example, Copper’s mentor dog, Chief, gets injured after being struck by a train — he survives, but breaks his leg. Like with “Chicken Run,” this film contains a bit of justice when it comes to cruel humans: Amos, the hunter who owns Chief and Copper, ends up falling into one of his own hunting traps. Also, we see Amos become a better person when he realizes that Tod saved both his and Copper’s lives after a bear attack, and therefore decides not to shoot the fox. “The Fox and the Hound” has a happy ending, as both Tod and Copper are alive and have reconciled their friendship. And, yet, there’s no guarantee that Tod will be able to have a carefree life, safe from dangerous humans. Even with a friend like Copper, nothing can guarantee the fox’s safety, which makes “The Fox and the Hound” about as anti-hunting as it can get.
7. Free Birds
Source: Rotten Tomatoes Trailers/Youtube
2013’s “Free Birds” is a Thanksgiving-themed film about two turkeys who time-travel to the first Thanksgiving in hopes of taking turkeys off the holiday’s menu. These two turkeys are very different: one, Reggie, has been pardoned by the president and is now living a carefree life; and the other, Jake (voiced by longtime vegan Woody Harrison), escapes from a factory farm and takes Reggie with him in his quest to rewrite history. In the film, Reggie saves the doomed turkeys in the past by giving the pilgrims cheese pizza as a substitute for meat — yet, unless this is vegan cheese, it’s not really any better than the pilgrims’ previously carnivorous holiday plans, as the dairy and egg industries are inherently cruel and violent. Despite the film’s interesting premise, it received mostly negative reviews from critics, receiving a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. The critical summary claims that “Free Birds” “begs unfortunate comparisons with the dim-witted fowl that inspired” the film, implying that both the film and turkeys are stupid. In fact, turkeys are known to be quite intelligent and curious, so this is an unfair comparison.
“Free Birds” is particularly helpful in drawing attention to turkeys raised and used for food. The film makes it a point to showcase the intelligence of Reggie and Jake, as they have both realized they’re meant to eventually be on humans’ dinner plates. They are also given distinct and interesting personalities and flaws, thereby making them more relatable despite their species. The film also has a rather happy ending, as the pilgrims decide to eat pizza instead of turkey at Thanksgiving, which clearly would have altered history. After watching the film, children may tell their parents that they no longer want to eat turkey at Thanksgiving. There are plenty of plant-based alternatives to typical holiday meals, and hopefully films like “Free Birds” can convince people to change their ways.
8. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a stop-motion animated adaptation of the classic story of Pinocchio that won the Oscar earlier for Animated Feature Film earlier this year. Helmed and co-written by previous Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, this adaptation received acclaim from critics and audiences alike. While the principal character is a wooden boy come to life, Pinocchio’s friends include Cricket and Spazzatura, a monkey. Cricket is continually put through the ringer, getting smashed numerous times but always recovering; most of these injuries and/or near-death experiences are played for comic effect, thereby assuring the audience that he is not in any real danger. Cricket is meant to be Pinocchio’s voice of reason — his conscience, essentially — guiding him on his journey as he learns to be a real boy. The use of Cricket in this way treats insects as more than mere pests, and as creatures much more intelligent than we realize. Also, Cricket has a much happier fate in the film than he does in the original book, where he is actually killed by Pinocchio and spends most of his time as a ghost. Fortunately, in del Toro’s version, Cricket lives a full, long life and gets to write (and) tell the story of Pinocchio the way he wants to.
When Pinocchio is persuaded by showman Count Volpe to join the circus, he is formed to perform alongside Spazzatura, who — as it turns out — is unhappy with his situation. The wooden boy and the monkey end up teaming up, as they are both fighting the cruelty of Count Volpe. Obviously, there is much to be said about the treatment of animals in circuses; most animal activists would agree that animals should not be used in circuses at all. Animals used for entertainment purposes are typically not treated well; and, in some of the worst cases, monkeys in circuses are forced to wear clothing and other objects in situations that are meant to be funny for viewers, but are clearly not comfortable or fun for the animals. As we see in “Pinocchio,” Spazzatura is often forced to do things that he doesn’t want to do, just as is the case for monkeys used for entertainment. These animals might be beaten, have their hands bound, forced to perform so-called “tricks” that are unnatural for them, and do other terrible things. Fortunately, Spazzatura — like Cricket — has a happy ending, given the ability to live out a long, full, and free life.
9. Shark Tale
Source: Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers/Youtube
2004’s “Shark Tale” is an animated film about a fish named Oscar who lies about having killed the son of a shark mob boss in order to improve his standing in his community. Even though “Shark Tale” was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, it received mostly negative reviews from critics, ending up with a 35% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics claimed that the film was “derivative” and filled with rather empty emotions. Audiences, however, seemed more fond of the film, which was clearly aimed at a younger audience, despite a plethora of jokes about the “Godfather” movies.
“Shark Tale” features a vegetarian character in the form of Lenny the shark, who fights against the instinct to kill for food and teaches other sharks to adopt more compassionate lifestyles. Lenny is the younger son of the mob boss, and is disliked by his father because he is a vegetarian; he’s very outgoing and friendly, and is essentially the total opposite of his aggressive and carnivorous father and older brother. Lenny has a deep respect for all ocean life, which is why he has decided to abstain from eating meat. Eventually, though, his father reconciles with and accepts Lenny. This is similar to the way in which vegetarians and vegans are sometimes looked down upon by friends, family, and strangers who are ignorant of the reasonings behind this lifestyle. Also, Lenny’s respect for all creatures is equivalent to the respect that vegetarians and vegans have for all animals; just as it goes against Lenny’s nature as a typically carnivorous great white shark to be a vegetarian, so is it seemingly against human nature for us to stop consuming animal products. Lenny is the most likable character in “Shark Tale,” yet he is not viewed favorably by his own family members. Hopefully, this film can help young, budding vegetarians and vegans see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that they should be firm in their beliefs, regardless of what others think.
Clearly, this list is not exhaustive, as there are numerous other animated films that can remind children and adults alike to be kind to animals. After watching one or more of the aforementioned films, have a discussion with someone else — a friend, family member, or even acquaintance — about what you’ve seen and how that might affect how you view animals going forward. Maybe “Chicken Run” and “Free Birds” have convinced you to stop eating meat, and “Finding Nemo” has convinced you to stop eating fish. And, if you’re already vegan or vegetarian, make sure to abstain from any other activities that harm animals, such as hunting and fishing, as well as circuses and other forms of entertainment that use animals. Consider hosting film screenings to encourage people to adopt more animal-friendly habits, and hold a talkback after each screening.
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