Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The ballots are in and the votes have been tabulated. It's official: children love talking animals. There's just something special about anthropomorphic house pets that really drives them wild. And who can blame them? They're undeniably adorable.
The Disney Corporation is well-aware of this fact and has been milking it since its humble steamboat-driving mouse beginnings. Disney's 1993 remake of its own 1963 movie (The Incredible Journey) was no exception. Based on the novel of the same name by Sheila Burnford, the 1963 version featured our furry friends sporting the somewhat less-appealing monikers assigned to them by Burnford: Bodger, Luath, and Tao. Disney must have recognized that the ever-shortening attention spans of 90s children would likely oppose these unfamiliar names and thus replaced them with the snappier Shadow, Chance, and Sassy.
People of all ages seem to have an uncharacteristic response of sympathy to animals in movies. We could all carelessly watch hundreds of people getting blown to bits in some form of super-advanced special effect explosion and never bat an eye or miss a beat on the popcorn-gobbling. Portray a dog in any form of mild discomfort, on the other hand, and the crowd will weep uncontrollably.
Homeward Bound was no exception. It had a distinctly heartstring-tugging cuteness that made us collectively "awww" over our motley crew of four-legged protagonists. We willingly oblige to completely abandon our usual veneer of disbelief and briefly believe that these animals are feeling what the voice actors claim. It was both easy and enjoyable to get caught up in the magic of the film and root for these pets the whole way through.
The movie begins with a voiceover by Chance, describing his hard-luck life: abandoned, sleeping on the streets, and scavenging in garbage cans. We learn that eventually, this lifestyle led to his imprisonment. You sort of feel bad for this voice, until the camera pans over the voice's source: a hearty American Bulldog. Surprise! Chance is a dog! I never would have guessed it from all of those movie posters and cinematic previews. That voice-over had me fooled. Then again, I was eight, so I'm willing to legitimately plead ignorance.
Chance (voiced by Michael J. Fox) was adopted by a loving family who already has two pets in tow: Sassy the Himalayan cat (Sally Fields) and Shadow the golden retriever (Don Ameche). Chance describes the family's children as belonging to Sassy and Shadow respectively, cementing our understanding of the film's pet-centric view. I spent much of the opening scenes deliberating over why little girl Hope had chosen to name her beloved cat after a teen magazine.
Shadow and Sassy are well-behaved, but Chance is somewhat of a rebel and a bit rough around the edges. The family leaves the pets under the care of a neighbor as they make their exit to San Francisco. They say their goodbyes and are off on their happy, petless way. The pets aren't about to stand for this sort of abadonment, though. Shadow immediately begins to worry about his owner, and convinces the whole gang that they should hightail it it out of there and go find their now-absent human companions.
Here's where our promised Incredible Journey begins. Shadow, Chance, and Sassy make their way into the wide wilderness, embarking on a scenic trip through a stretch of Pacific Northwestern national forest. They navigate their wild, unfamiliar surroundings and weather the less-than-hospitable outdoor conditions. They continue to do adorable animal things, like scoop for fish in the river and cower in the presence of truly terrifying grizzly bears. Really, cute stuff. Here's where I learned some of my most valued childhood lessons, namely that "Cats rule and dogs drool." Or at least it provided me with a mantra of self-reassurance when my parents brought me a cat in lieu of the dog I begged for.
The movie takes a tear-jerking turn when our pal Sassy is swept away by the river and thrust into the pounding falls. Even as a child, this scene made me cry. Shadow and Chance, how could you? You just let your prissy feline friend be smushed by 10,000 pounds of beating water. For shame. Luckily, Sassy is rescued by some class of forest ranger and is quickly nursed back to pre-waterfalling health. She hears her friends barking and scurries off to meet them. Sure, this chance encounter is unlikely, but we're talking about a gang of domesticated animals off on a wilderness adventure. We can concede the smaller improbable situations when we accept the larger one.
As you can imagine, innumerable hilarious hijinks ensue, such as the see-saw style catapulting of a rogue mountain lion. Pure wildlife comedy gold, I tell you. But then, the unthinkable: Chance is attacked by a pesky porcupine. I will forever remember the sage Shadow instructing him, "Whatever you do, don't lick yourself!" Despite being all quilly, Chance soldiers on and the group continues on their way. They somehow manage to rescue a lost child, but in the midst of the celebratory reunion are sent to an animal shelter.
Long (incredible, really) story short, Sassy escapes and frees her canine companions. Just when everything seems to be looking up, Shadow falls into a pit. Despite valiant rescue efforts, Shadow is resigned and asks the others to go on without him. By this point, of course, the whole audience is sniffling. A dog dying on film is like onion-chopping for moviegoers: you can pretend all you want that it doesn't effect you, but your eyes are going to water uncontrollably whether you like it or not.
The pets' family is back home and very down about the loss of their furry friends. Then suddenly, like magic, they hear a bark in the distance. Chance come rollicking in, followed by littleSassy. The oldest son is dejected, realizing his dog isn't coming home. In a moment of admittedly corny by nonetheless heartwarming movie magic, Shadow slowly limps over the hill and is reunited with his beloved owner. All is well in the world.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for happy endings. It just goes to show you: if you really love your animals, you'll leave them with irresponsible neighbors with questionable pet-sitting credentials, the pets will escape and embark on a quest into the abyss, they'll encounter hilarious and dangerous obstacles, and will then come prancing on back to you full of wisdom and experience.
At least that's the way I understood it.