Elephants fly. People jump into sidewalk drawings. Animal sidekicks give advice. That’s Disney magic for you. But that’s just the quandary. In Disney movies, not all animals talk to the same extent, even in the same movie. I’m going to delve deeper into the mystery of the mechanics of talking beasts in Disney animated (and live-action movies with animation). Note: There are some obvious movies with animals that I’m leaving out, simply because they don’t have any humans in them and thus can’t shed light on the animal/human interactions (Lion King and Robin Hood, for example). Here are the categories I came up with (the movies listed in each are by no means an exhaustive list):
1) Humans and animals speak to each other freely:
In The Jungle Book, though Mowgli is raised by wolves, he can converse freely among all of the animals, no matter the species. There’s only one other human in the movie, the little girl from the village, whom Mowgli (apparently) can also understand. Since she has no interaction with the animals, it is tough to say whether or not she, too can understand them. Maybe talking to animals was all in Mowgli’s mind the entire time…
Mary Poppins is another one where it’s not entirely clear whether the animated sequences are real (and thus Mary Poppins really does have magic), or if they’re all in the imagination. After all, when Jane and Michael start talking about their experiences back in the real world, Mary Poppins calls it nonsense. Whether she does this to dissuade the kids from spreading truth of her magic or because it really is nonsense they came up with is unclear. It’s a really awesome nanny that can use make-believe to entertain her charges, after all.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks:
Anyway, for those you don’t know the story, Ms. Price is an actual witch (yes, there is real magic in this movie), who is trying to find the spell to make inanimate objects move in order to help with World War II. They end up going to a magical island called the Isle of Naboombu on an enchanted bed. On the island, animals have been given the ability to talk (given being a key word). The animals can talk to each other as well as the humans. However, it is clear that the ability of speech was given by humans and with magic. This explanation’s all tied up.
[[Sidebar: I realize Bedknobs is a bit of an obscure reference for some people, but it’s definitely worth a watch. The song “The Beautiful, Briny Sea” was a musical number originally written for a fantasy sequence in Mary Poppins (by the Sherman Brothers, arguably the best Disney songwriting team, tied with Alan Menkman and Tim Rice). It’s the same sort of animation style: both live-action and animation, with David Tomlinson (also from Mary Poppins) and the amazing Angela Lansbury. It’s a family favorite of mine, most notably because this extra in the Portobello Road scene is my dad:
Go watch it. Just make sure it’s not the extended version. It’s about an hour too long. There’s something to be said about editing. Sidebar over.]]
Alice in Wonderland:
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice interacts not just with talking animals, but talking flowers and all sorts of weird, hybrid creatures. Even without Alice, humans and animals interact easily: The Mad Hatter and the March Hare, or the Walrus and the Carpenter. It’s pretty clear from the movie, however, that all of it’s in her head, since she wakes up from a dream at the end of it. It is called Wonderland, after all, like it’s a figment of her imagination.
This one has the same situation as Jungle Book. Man raised by gorillas can speak to all sorts of animals, but it’s not clear whether any other humans can. And since Tarzan has to learn how to speak English throughout the movie, it’s clear that humans probably can’t understand the animals.
There are more movie examples, I’m sure, but I’m working from memory here. Let’s move on to our next category…
2) Animals can speak, but humans can’t understand them:
The Princess and the Frog:
This movie is one of the best examples of animals being able to talk without humans understanding. Tiana is shocked when Prince Naveen (as a frog) can speak. Hence, it’s not a common occurrence. In fact, all of the animals can speak, she finds out, but only other animals can understand them, or humans who have been turned into animals.
In 101 Dalmatians, it is clear that the animals can talk to one another (even cross-species), and they can understand humans, but humans can’t understand them. Otherwise, wouldn’t it have been simpler for Pongo in the park to just say, “Hey, Roger. You should go talk to that woman over there. She’s got a dalmatian. Then maybe we can both get some action.” But instead, Pongo has to go through this elaborate scheme with leashes to get them together.
Lady & the Tramp:
Another obvious one. Yes, the guy at the Italian restaurant talks to Lady and the Tramp, but they don’t talk back except in barks. Even dogs and cats can understand each other (the Siamese cats, for example), but not the humans. (Side note: cats are jerks.)
Now on to the biggest category….
3) Animals can understand and interact with humans, but can’t speak:
Sure, Pocahontas speaks to a magical tree, but is she really talking to it or is she just “communing with nature” and the conversation is metaphorical? In any case, the animals themselves don’t talk (which, I claim, is why Pocahontas falls far behind most of the other Disney movies of its era. The comic relief is all visual, so there’s not a lot of funny quotes to repeat.) However, the animals do an awful lot of interacting with each other, and a good deal of anthropomorphized interaction with the humans. Pocahontas does talk to Meeko and Flit, but that’s more of that “communing with nature” bit, or like an owner talking to their pets.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
Not a lot of animals in this one, but the few there are don’t speak. (Ex: Esmeralda’s goat and Phoebus’ horse). The gargoyles speak, but it’s unclear whether this is a manifestation of Quasimodo’s loneliness or actually real (probably the former rather than the latter). [[Another underrated movie. Go rewatch it. The score is FANTASTIC and it’s really quite funny. I think its only real failing is that it went a little too dark, but what can you do with the original source material? It’s not really that much darker than Gaston riling up a whole bunch of villagers to go storm a castle and commit murder…]]
Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse. Simply awesome, but can’t talk. Maximus is truly the most overly anthropomorphized horse of them all, with the way he is actively trying to find Flynn Rider, even without his rider. Most of the other Disney horses interact with their riders, but just to show their emotions. Maximus is truly autonomous. He just can’t talk.
The big example from this is Sven. Christoff talks to him (constantly) and talks for him (often), but Sven never talks under his own power. He interacts heavily with Olaf as well, always trying to eat his carrot nose, but Sven is definitely one of the more animal-like of the animals. I don’t count Olaf as an animal because he’s a snowman, and is also created by Elsa’s magic.
This one is obvious. Snow White has the power to command forest creatures to do her bidding, having them do chores on her behalf while she sings away. They understand her completely (“Ah, ah, ah…not under the rug!”) and know how to use cleaning implements. But they can’t talk.
Another princess with animal-summoning powers. Aurora talks to the animals in the forest, who are so intelligent they can make a fake human just using Phillip’s clothes, one so sophisticated that Aurora can dance with it. There’s also another great horse in this one: Samson, Phillip’s noble steed. He’s got attitude.
Again, not very many animals in this one, but there are a few. I don’t count Phil because he’s a satyr (thus, part-human) and a mythical creature rather than a straight-up animal. There’s Pegasus, also a mythological creature, but I’ll count him as an animal. He interacts with Hercules, even actively hates Megara and tries to divebomb the ground while she’s on his back, and is definitely one of the more anthropomorphized animals out there. (Though, considering he was created from clouds by Zeus, this isn’t surprising.)
The Emperor’s New Groove:
This is an interesting one. Emperor’s New Groove almost doesn’t fit in this category, or any category where the animals are anthropomorphized. Pacha’s llama Misty really doesn’t act like anything but a pack animal (with the barely qualifying example being her interaction with Cuzco), and the jaguars are just jaguars. The only animals we hear speak are ones who were once human (Cuzco and Yzma). But why did I put Emperor’s New Groove in this category? Bucky the squirrel. He speaks, but speaks Squirrel. Kronk can only understand him because he has learned Bucky’s language previously (and teaches it to the others at the end of the movie). Bucky is straight-up anthropomorphized, offering Cuzco nuts then getting revenge for being rejected so rudely, then giving directions to Kronk and Yzma.
Now on to the crux of the paradox…
4) The Disney Animal Paradox: Animals can talk to humans, but not all animals!
Here’s the paradox: There are some Disney movies in which one or more animals can talk, but there are other animals who clearly lack the ability. Here’s a few:
One of the most obvious on the list. Mushu can talk, but Cric-Kee and her horse Khan can’t. Is this because Mushu is summoned by the ancestor’s magic? Is it because he’s a dragon? Would the Great Stone Dragon have been able to talk, too? (Also, why didn’t summoning him work, since obviously the ancestors can bring statues to life quite easily).
Gus and Jaq and all of their little mice friends can talk and be understood by Cinderella. But the big fat cat doesn’t talk at all. Is it because Cinderella is only imagining that the mice can talk, since she is so unloved by her step-family and has to make friends with vermin? (If this is true, then she needs to find psychological help ASAP!)
This is a weird one, straddling a few categories. Iago can speak (and does so quite loudly and often). Raja can’t speak, but interacts and reacts to things Aladdin and/or Jasmine say. Then in between, there’s Abu, who mostly squeaks but occasionally is almost intelligible. (You can clearly hear him say, “Hewwo…Awaddin…” as he tries to rouse Aladdin from unconsciousness.) Can Iago speak because he’s a parrot, because Jafar has used his magic to enchant him, or both? And Iago’s speaking is not mere parroting; he’s definitely got his own opinions about things. And as for Abu, is his speaking just a choice of the voice actor, unconscious or otherwise? In trying to make monkey noises, did they slip in a few words just for some Disney magic and humor for those who can pick up on it?
The Little Mermaid:
This one’s also got some inconsistency to it. It seems like everything under the sea can talk: Sebastian, Flounder, that little seahorse guy. The fish in “Under the Sea” don’t speak themselves, but if they have the cognitive wherewithal to play instruments and dance in a coordinated fashion, they probably can speak. But Max the dog can’t and doesn’t speak, and is as close to non-anthropomorphized as you can get. It’d be easy to say that things in Ariel’s world (i.e. under the sea) can speak, but those on land can’t, except for Scuttle, who can speak. So you see the problem. Even that theory, if not already broken, gets debunked again by the shark in the sunken ship near the beginning of the movie. Granted, maybe it could talk, but chose not to because it was hungry for mermaid flesh. There’s also the matter of Flounder, Scuttle and Sebastian: can Ariel only understand them because she grew up under the sea (just as Tarzan could understand his animal friends)? Can Eric understand them as well? (As far as I can remember, they never had any interaction apart from Scuttle warbling, but as that was singing sounds and not words, I have no idea). Sebastian doesn’t even talk to Chef Louis as he’s trying to kill the poor crab, so who knows if anyone but merpeople (let’s put them in the “human-like category”) can understand them.
The Great Mouse Detective:
Another underrated movie. A Sherlock-Holmes-esque mouse faces off against Vincent Price as a Professor-Moriarity-like rat who thinks he’s a mouse. Again, a little dark both graphically and tone-wise, but granted they were trying to make London look as it would have during that age, complete with London fog and coaldust-covered streets and buildings. All of the mice (and the rat) talk, being the central species to the story. However, the cat Felicia doesn’t talk at all, but the nasty peg-legged bat henchmen does. Bats are not technically rodents, but maybe the similarity between them make them all be able to talk amongst themselves? Or does the cat just not talk because it’s a cat and can do whatever it wants, including not talk if it doesn’t want to? (See earlier argument: Cats are jerks.)
This is the weirdest one of all. Timothy the mouse speaks (Incessantly. He’s actually one of the main reasons I don’t like rewatching Dumbo. That, and the waterworks-inducing song, “Baby Mine.”) Then there’s the excessively un-PC crows, who talk and sing. But the main character, Dumbo, doesn’t speak a single word the entire time. We know elephants can speak (the circus elephants and are actually pretty catty, considering they’re elephants), but Dumbo never does. Is this because he’s still a baby and hasn’t developed that ability yet? Or is he mute? Or is he just an introvert? He clearly understands what Timothy is saying to him, so why does he never talk back?
Another weird one. Nearly the entire movie is populated by the normal Disney system of humans with interacting-yet-non-speaking animals. Pinocchio lives in a human village and nearly all of his interactions are with humans. The fish Cleo and the cat Figaro can’t talk, but they react to things said or done to them. Then there’s Jiminy Cricket, who is, in fact, an animal (well, an insect), but can clearly talk to Pinocchio (and, correct me if I’m wrong, Geppetto and Lampwick. Granted, it is unclear if those two actually understand him). The Blue Fairy can understand him, but she’s a fairy, so that’s a given. Can Pinocchio only understand Jiminy because he’s not actually human himself, or because the Blue Fairy made Jiminy his conscience?
The real question you should be asking yourself is why, when Pinocchio lives in what is clearly a human village, with no strange animal behavior outside of his magical talking friend, is there a fox walking around town with his cat companion, wearing clothes and convincing not-real-boys to become actors or go to Pleasure Island?
This doesn’t make any sense. It’s like Disney decided that having so many evil (or at least not-so-good) humans was making us look bad as a species, and decided to make Honest John a fox. (Cuz, you know, foxes are crafty.) Or maybe there were supposed to be more fully-speaking animal characters (like Jiminy Cricket) but they just decided to stop with those three.
Assuming all of these Disney movies are all part of the same universe, there is one over-arching theme I can give to explain all of these different categories: Animals can speak, they can be understood by other animals, but only some animals can or choose to speak in a way humans can understand (or at all). I equate these non-talking animals to shy or introverted people, who may not be talking at all times. They are observers, not doers. Followers, not leaders. They might have strong personalities in the animal world, but among humans (which, granted, are pretty scary and dangerous), they choose to maintain their appearance of docility and stupidity. Also, humans who have been turned into animals gain (and apparently, retain) the power of understanding animal speech.
That’s it! My two cents. Also, can anyone actually think of Disney movies where horses actually speak? I want to say either Lady and the Tramp or 101 Dalmatians, but since neither of those movies are my particular favorites and I don’t feel like rewatching them to find out, and Google didn’t come up with anything after a cursory search, I’m not going to bother finding out. Also, I never saw Home on the Range, which I assume has horses in it because it’s on a farm. Also, I’m open to any additions to the list I didn’t put here. I was lazy and only listed Disney movies that I could remember without rewatching.
(Also, sorry for the near-absence of pictures. I started with screencaps for each of the movies, but it was taking forever to find ones that I wanted, and they weren’t adding much to the post other than making it longer. If you really can’t sit through an entire post of mine (which, granted, can be rather long-winded) without pictures, then maybe you should go to Buzzfeed. I promise I’ll have some picture-full posts soon. Still working on that Little Mermaid gender swap.)