Well-calculated cuddliness

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Robin Buss reviews the latest literary arrivals on the cinema screen

It is a fact well known to film-makers that children love animals. This may be because some animals look endearing and cuddly, and children grow up with soft toys representing them; or it may be because children identify with inarticulate, relatively powerless creatures, who are often cast in the role of victims.

Anna Sewell's novel, Black Beauty, published in 1877 at a time when horses were essential to the economy, sees them much as a slave class, with hierarchies that reflect the social hierarchies above them. But it matters less what station in life you occupy - cab, cart or carriage - than that your master should treat you kindly. The Victorian wife, as well as her horses and children, might have concurred with that.

Now that horses have lost most of their economic role, we are left with a more vague appeal for kindness to animals, and an historical curiosity, with appealing sets and costumes. To engage the reader's sympathy more fully, Sewell gave Beauty a voice. Previous film adaptations have ignored this, but writer-director Caroline Thompson reverts to it, in voiceover, and this first-person, horse's mouth narration verges on the ridiculous. Add to which the fact that a horse is a pretty unexpressive beast, able to do little except whinny and prance, and you have a black hole at the emotional heart of the film.

Horsey children will probably enjoy it but even they are unlikely to be much moved by what is, after all, a famous tear-jerker.

The Jungle Book is the Disney Corporation's second assault on Kipling's tales. The first was an animated cartoon, which is referred to by a passing reference here to "the bare necessities" (there were similar in-jokes in The Lion King). Otherwise, the story has little connection either with the cartoon or with Kipling - confirming what you suspect about films which put the author's name in front of the title. Instead, we have a love affair involving the jungle boy, Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee), and the daughter (Lena Headley) of a well-meaning British official (Sam Neill), who considers Mowgli with the same scientific interest as the boy in Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child. Both the lovers and the father meet opposition from a racist colonial community, so Mowgli returns to the jungle, to assert his dominance over its creatures.

Superb camerawork and training show what is needed to make animals act, and if you can accept the film as an adventure, with many similarities to Indiana Jones, there is plenty of fun to be had; but don't come here for a class in history, biology or English literature. Note, too, that there are scenes some younger children might find disturbing (for example, when a soldier is swallowed by quicksands); they should stay with the cartoon.

In this live-action feature, as in its cartoon, Disney has no compunction about attributing human characteristics to animals and, unlike the more scrupulous (or less skilful) Black Beauty, using them to produce a well-calculated audience response.

Andre, the story of a little girl in Maine, her loopy family and a seal, is even more shameless in its manipulation of our emotions. Andre is funny, affectionate, super-intelligent: the sort of seal who goes out to rescue a small boat in a storm and plays practical jokes on your next-door neighbour. In short, he is one of us: the essential "unknowability" of wild creatures, which survives even the most ludicrous assumptions of Black Beauty and The Jungle Book is entirely abolished. This "true story" will delight young children Let's just hope they don't grow up like its heroine, under the illusion that a seal was "the best friend I ever had".

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