The Celluloid Cage

Animal liberation at the movies

by Will Fesperman

Illustration by Julie Kwon

published October 24, 2014

There’s a moment in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that made me shiver. A human repeats the famous line from the 1968 version, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” But in 2011, the human is the oppressor, and our chimpanzee hero, Caesar, sounds his first articulate word: "NOOOOO!” in response. The cry is follwed by silence, the human shock as that NO shoots out of a B-movie blockbuster and laps up to every American doorstep and dinner table. This millennial ape is not a human in disguise. He speaks for hundreds of millions in labs, for billions in windowless farms.

So how did animal liberation sneak into cinema? In fact, there are lots of movies in which animals escape human-imposed captivity, and even a few films that critique speciesism (in a phrase, the system that confines and kills nonhuman animals). But Rise of the Planet of the Apes—a summer action flick re-make starring James Franco—outshines them all. Rise can be read as a watershed moment for animals in cinema. One more crack in the wall.

It began with Bambi (1942), the Walt Disney feature about a white-tailed deer whose mother is killed by “Man,” and it continues today with the liberated zoo animals of DreamWorks’ Madagascar franchise. Cinema is one of two major media in our culture that frequently tell stories of animals fleeing captivity and abuse. The other medium is children’s books. The fact that these stories even exist in our society—one that at every turn preaches human superiority and exploits animals—deserves close inspection.

One quickly realizes, surveying films with animal liberation plots, that most of these movies are animated and aimed at the five-to-ten-year-old set. One also notes that these movies aren’t actually about animals. They’re about humans—how we talk, how we think, how we love, hate, rebel.

Here’s what happens to dangerous narratives: first, the rebellious animals become villains, and their liberation inflicts human tragedy. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), we see, early on, parakeets in cages and chickens battered and fried. Then the birds come in flocks to peck out children’s eyes. In 28 Days Later (2002), the escape of a few lab chimps heralds the death of humankind. And in Willard (1971), a boy is eaten alive by rodents after refusing to kill the rats in his house.

If animal control fails, we muzzle. We stuff stories of animal liberation into a trivial form, animated children’s movies: 101 Dalmatians (1961), Chicken Run (2000), Madagascar (2005), Free Birds (2013). Then we snip the teeth (and beaks, and tails): we tame animals’ lived oppression into an allegory for human experience. These movies teach children about human friendship, human forgiveness, human perseverance. Those Claymation chickens escaping a slaughterhouse in Chicken Run? A satire on old P.O.W. films, of course. We’re sent to war like sheep to slaughter. Critics say the caged parrot in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a metaphor for women in the patriarchy. But what about the parrot? What if the parrot is a parrot?

Another tactic: root out all references to (or criticisms of ) actual systems of oppression. Thus the animals in the Madagascar grow nostalgic for the pampered lives they used to live in the zoo.

Even in this neutered and spayed form, animal liberation plots can unsettle. Disney earned rebuke from deer hunters in 1942, and to this day animal-eaters call planteaters “Bambi-lovers.” I’m surprised Rise, a film about animal testing, didn’t get some cheek from the biomedical industry, which in the movie suffers a few barbs (and is ultimately responsible for the end of human civilization). But perhaps scientists know the end is near for research on apes in the US, home to most of the remaining captive chimpanzees in the world. Rise, unlike animal films before it, doesn’t shy away from those actual chimps in actual cages.

Rise exudes a confidence in its critique of labs and zoos, as if the filmmakers trusted the message would resonate with mainstream viewers. Apes have personalities and feel emotions like we do, a lab worker tells Will (James Franco). The lab worker has just euthanized 12 primates with a lethal injection, and can’t bear to kill one more. He hands the needle to Will, to all of us, and the film asks us in its somewhat clunky but sincere way, “Could you? Could you?” And then the film delivers a classic critique of animal testing—that the results don’t transfer to humans. In this case, a drug that makes chimpanzees smarter doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s in humans; it kills humans, and will ultimately kill most of the human race.

But the jabs at animal testing aren’t what make Rise a revolutionary film. It’s the treatment of its animal characters, who are animals, not stand-ins for humans. In the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, the ape characters stand fully upright, wear clothes, and even have human-like hairstyles. The ape costumes look comically fake, which heightens the sense that the film is a parable about humanity, not a story about human-animal relations. But in Rise, filmmakers created ape characters who were physically and psychologically much more ape-like. In an interview with Parade, the film’s visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri said their goal was a more realistic chimp. “What we really do is try to understand the difference in how humans make certain expressions and how apes make those expressions and try to find the blend between the two,” he said.

When have we ever seen a complex film character who is an animal and does not walk, talk, and think like a human? Granted, Caesar is a super-smart chimpanzee who eventually acquires human speech. But his ape subjectivity, expressed in his movements and his relations with other apes, never disappears. Long sequences of Rise depict communication between apes who haven’t taken the special drug, who are regular apes. They speak with species-specific body language and gestures. One orangutan who picked up sign language from the circus communicates to Caesar with rudimentary signs, and the film provides subtitles. Unlike the apes in Planet, the apes in Rise are apes, not humans. Their experiences are not about racism, or the Vietnam War, or human genocide. Their experiences are their own, and Rise respects them as such.

Rise is also anti-speciesist in a less sexy, but more important way; the producers chose to use computer animation rather than live apes. Using captive animals would have negated the film’s critique. The movie industry has a history you don’t want to hear, or maybe about which you don’t care, like the on-screen slaughter of pigs, turtles, monkeys, horses, and, in Apocalypse Now (1979), an ox. Even pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, in his 1925 film Strike, depicts a man’s cutting a cow’s throat as she writhes on the ground. Eisenstein uses her death as a metaphor. How clever.

Rise isn’t the first mainstream film with a liberationist agenda. In the two years leading up to the 1975 publication of Peter Singer’s classic animal rights text, Animal Liberation, two films rang the bell for nonhumans: Charlotte’s Web (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Viewers rarely detect the radical blood that runs between them. Speciesist culture teaches us to understand pig slaughter in Charlotte’s Web as an allegory and to ignore Chainsaw’s anti-speciesist critique.

Charlotte’s Web faithfully reproduces E.B. White’s 1952 children’s book about a pig saved from the blade. The movie includes the book’s unsettling first line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” And Chainsaw reminds humans that we are animals, with animal skin and animal blood; that humans can only be “dehumanized” or treated “like animals” if we treat nonhuman animals “like animals,” i.e., with horrific cruelty. Characters die on meat hooks and human skin becomes clothing. In a 2010 interview with Bizarre, director Tobe Hooper said he became a vegetarian while making the film, adding, “the heart of the film was about meat.”

Subversive as these films are, they lack Rise’s political bite. Fern does not rescue Wilbur the pig from a factory farm. That said, Rise is not everything most animal liberationists (who often adhere to sociological or Marxist analyses of oppression familiar to Brown students) would hope for. There’s no intersectional critique of speciesism, racism, and sexism. I think one woman has a speaking role, and I don’t remember her name. And the apes ride horses in the final scene—can’t the horses be liberated, too? You think I’m joking.

The shortcomings are to be expected. Americans are just now rubbing their eyes at the idea that animals ought not to be imprisoned and killed. We’re beginning with the easy species: the ones lucky enough to share at least 90 percent of the human genome, plus cute dolphins at SeaWorld. In the early 1960s, men wagged their fingers at Jane Goodall for calling chimpanzees “he” and “she,” because a beasty brute is an “it.” Fifty years later, in June 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced its plan to retire all but 50 of its chimpanzees from labs to sanctuaries. And yet, we continue to sweep away the annual crop: 10 billion animals for food, millions from the labs. There are two more Madagascar spin-offs in the works, but with Rise, imperfect as it is, mainstream cinema has registered the first tremors of change.