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Animal Movies: Lions and Penguins and Dogs, Oh My!

Max and other Animal Movies

Max is the latest in a long line of films featuring animals that make us laugh, cry, and cheer...

That’s the thing about movies featuring animals: we are always rooting for the main character...

Best friend. Hero. Marine. That’s how the four-legged star of Max is described. Cue tears. When the troubled military dog from Afghanistan is adopted by his late handler’s grieving family, he develops a connection with the soldier’s teenage brother. Pass the tissues. That’s the thing about movies featuring animals: we are always rooting for the main character — whether it’s a jungle beast, sea creature, or beloved pet. Here are some of our favourite live-action, animated, and documentary films with animals in a lead role, plus a few films that deserve a repeat viewing.

Man’s best friend

My Dog Skip (2000)

The close bond between a boy and his dog is a common movie theme, and Willie and his Jack Russell terrier, Skip, have one of the strongest. In 1942 Mississippi, Willie, a lonely only child, receives a puppy for his ninth birthday. The adventurous Skip quickly becomes a steadfast companion whose rambunctious ways win over his owner’s bullies and help Willie attract the attention of cutest girl in school. As in most films of this genre, there comes a time when the owner must say goodbye to his best friend — a beloved dog. *Sniff*

Other canine favourites:

Marley & Me; Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey; Turner & Hooch

Down on the farm

Babe (1995)

Who says a pig is just a pig? Won at a county fair, the piglet seems bound for Farmer Hoggett’s dinner table but is saved when he is adopted by Fly, a border collie who raises Babe alongside her puppies. As it turns out, Babe has some serious sheepherding skills — enough to convince his owner to actually enter the pig in the annual sheepdog championship. It’s Farmer Hoggett’s words of praise to Babe at the end of the film that leave us smiling.

Other farm favourites:

Charlotte’s Web; Home on the Range; Shaun the Sheep Movie

Birds of a feather

March of the Penguins (2005)

This stunning documentary, with Morgan Freeman’s smooth narration, has it all: drama, comedy, tragedy. Each March, the Emperor penguins of Antarctica must overcome the obstacles of the frozen tundra to return to their breeding ground to reproduce. But that is just the beginning of the story. The film follows the whole journey, from the choosing of mates to the delivery of the egg and the hatching of the chick. And through it all, the penguins — as cute as they are feisty — fight to survive in the harshest climate on Earth.

Other feathered favourites:

Rio; Fly Away Home; Chicken Run

In the wild

The Lion King (1994)

From cub to king. This animated favourite is the classic coming-of-age story. Simba, the young prince, is cast out by his scheming uncle when he is blamed for an accident that has killed his father. The uncle is a cruel king and the animals suffer. Simba, who has been living life with no worries (“Hakuna matata”) alongside his friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, must now decide if he is brave enough to return from exile, save the kingdom, and reclaim his rightful throne. Circle of life, right?

Other jungle favourites:

Madagascar; Two Brothers; The Jungle Book

Horse around

The Black Stallion (1979)

These majestic animals tend to bring out the best in people. While travelling by ship from Africa to England, young Alec befriends a mistreated Arabian stallion that is stabled on board. When the ship sinks, the boy and the horse survive, but are stranded on a desert island where the horse, now named “the Black,” must learn to trust a human. Rescued, the two return to Alec’s home in the United States, where a retired racehorse jockey takes notice of the horse and his speed. With Alec as jockey, the duo competes in a race that will determine a champion and seal the friendship started long ago.

Other equine favourites:

Seabiscuit; Hidalgo; War Horse

The water’s fine

Dolphin Tale (2011)

Boy saves dolphin. Dolphin saves boy. Inspired by a true story, this film elaborates on the tale of Winter, a prosthetic-wearing dolphin who resides at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium. When an introverted young boy named Sawyer finds the dolphin ensnared in a crab trap, the mammal’s life is saved, but her tail must be amputated. While Winter learns to adapt to swimming without it, the movement is actually causing more damage. Enter a helpful doctor who, at Sawyer’s request, designs a unique prosthetic tail to help Winter swim. The rest, as they say, is history.

Other ocean favourites:

Finding Nemo; Free Willy; Ponyo

Little critters

Ratatouille (2007)

A rat is one of the last things you want to see in a restaurant. Unless it’s Remy. When this critter with a sophisticated palate and culinary bent is discovered sniffing around one of Paris’ most exclusive bistros, he is saved from certain death by Linguini, the resto’s dishwasher. Under the rodent’s tutelage, Linguini’s cooking improves, as does the restaurant’s reputation. In time, the tall and small teams rise above what others expect of them to fulfill their dreams.

Other rodent favourites:

An American Tail; Stuart Little; The Secret of Nimh

Robin Stevenson is a Toronto-based entertainment and lifestyle writer.