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19 July 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:31am

Gilbey on Film: non-human stars

The talking animals in cinema worth hearing.

By Ryan Gilbey

Dr Dolittle could talk to the animals. This much we know. But what about those beasts in cinema who want to express complex thoughts and emotions, or converse with someone higher up the actors’ food-chain than Rex Harrison (or, heaven forbid, Eddie Murphy)?

One such example can be found in Beginners, which I will be reviewing in this Thursday’s issue of the NS. In this movie by Mike Mills, a Jack Russell terrier communicates telepathically with its owner (Ewan McGregor), and the non-human side of the exchange is made accessible to the audience via subtitles. It’s worth noting that Mills is the partner of the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, whose own latest movie, The Future (which opens in the UK in November) is narrated by a cat called Paw Paw. Mills admitted to me recently that he likes animals more than humans, but perhaps that’s simply what happens when you’ve been in the film industry too long.

You can hear Mills and his cast discussing the honour of working with Cosmo the dog here. And here is a brief run-down of other notable talking animals in cinema. Animation and children’s films are excluded — well, almost.

1.The rancid fox in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist proves with its menacing delivery of just two words (“Chaos reigns!”) that there are no small parts, only small actors.
2.Harvey the hell-hound in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam commands the “Son of Sam” serial killer to continue his bloodthirsty spree. The voice is provided by Lee regular John Turturro.
3. The pig-man hybrid in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! ranks among the most disturbing sights in all cinema (watch the whole clip, with the creature unveiled around 2:21). Trivia nerds will already know that he is played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later donned the costume of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
4.A small variety of non-human speaking parts in Garth Jennings’s film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but my pick would be the stoical whale played by Bill Bailey.
5.Like Cosmo in Beginners, the cat in Doug Liman’s underrated portmanteau comedy Go converses telepathically with its human co-star — in this case, a young supermarket clerk who has just taken Ecstasy.
6.Okay, so I said no children’s films. But this list would look plain odd without Snowbell, the withering cat squeezed out of his family’s affections in Stuart Little. Listen to the incomparable Nathan Lane stealing the show as Snowbell in the 2002 sequel.

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