Monday, August 6, 2012

Spirit Animal Helpers to the Heroines in Western Animation

Has anyone ever noticed the prevalance of what might be termed "spirit animals" as helpers to the heroines in Western animation?

The "spirit animal helper" is easily recognized.  It attaches itself inexplicably to the heroine, either before the story or at some crucial moment of choice.  It may look normal or strange for its kind:  sometimes it looks normal but doesn't really belong in the area in which it is encountered.  It displays unusual intelligence, will subtly (or not so subtly) influence its mistress to make the right choice at a moment of indecision; and has exceptional abilities to notice and often combat spiritual threats (such as demons summoned by the main villain).  The heroine generally treats it as a pet or even best friend, though she may or may not be consciously aware of its nature and capabilities.

This is in addition to any Friend to All Living Things qualities which the heroine may display.  The heroine may be loved by animals, but this usually takes the form of normally-wild animals acting tame and friendly toward her.  If a particular animal (wild or tame) hangs around with her almost constantly and (even more) if it acts directly to foil the villain's schemes, it is a Spirit Animal Helper.

The earliest example of this that I can think of from a full-length Western animated movie are the mice from Disney's Cindarella, who make the first version of her ball gown.  The most exceptionally perfect cases of Spirit Animal Helpers in such movies which I can name are Pooka, the dog from Don Bluth's Anastasia, and Pascal, the chameleon from Disney's Tangled.

Pooka deserves a paragraph of his own.  He shows up apparently from nowhere at the precise moment that Anastasia is trying to decide whether to go to St. Petersburg (which never was and never will be called anything repulsive like "Leningrad"), and makes up her mind for her.  He perceives Anastasia's dream about the ball at the Winter Palace.  He is the first one to be aware of all three of Rasputin's attacks.  Oh, and the word "pooka" refers to a sapient animal spirit, and we know from the other movie that's part of Bluth's Russian canon (Bartok the Magnificent) that in that universe there are powerful supernatural forces taking an interest in the fortunes of the Russian royals.

Bartok is much more obviously a Spirit Animal because Rasputin can talk to him.  He seems to have been assigned as Rasputin's familiar, which given his history and personality implies that Rasputin was originally meant to be a heroic priest, but was corrupted by the forces of darkness.  (This is actually not too far from the historic Rasputin, who may at first have meant well but soon yielded to the temptations of power).  It's notable that throughout the movie, Bartok is horrified at Rasputin's plans to kill Anastasia, and keeps trying to get him to renounce evil in favor of harmless pleasures.  You could even summarize much of the movie as "Anastasia listens to her Spirit Animal Helper.  Rasputin doesn't."

Pascal is a chameleon in a vaguely-Iberian realm of fantasy counterpart Europe, which means that he's outside of his normal habitat.  Nobody knows how he got there, and Mother Gothel doesn't seem to notice his existence.  By providing company to Rapunzel, Pascal foils the witch's plan to make the magical girl totally dependent on her approval, and he repeatedly communicates via pantomime with both Rapunzel and Flynn.

Disney's Aladdin universe is chock-full of Spirit Animal Helpers, which is appropriate because so was the Thousand and One Nights itself.  Heroine, hero and villain are issued one apiece, though by the second movie Aladdin and Jasmine are an unbreakable team and Jafar's former familiar attaches himself to the winners.  Aladdin gets Apu the monkey (who is, oddly, a New World rather than Old World monkey), Jasmine gets Rajah, an Indian tiger (a bit more geographically plausible) and Jafar has Iago, who is some sort of South American macaw (again, New World, but then there are many modes of travel in Arabian myth).  All have greater-than-normal intelligence for their kinds, and Iago can talk (in complete syntactically-correct sentences).

In Balto II:  Wolf Quest, we get to see mostly-realistic animals interacting with Spirit Animals.  During the whole middle of the story, Balto and his daughter Aleu -- who are only slightly smarter-than-plausible wolf-dog hybrids (if we assume the same sort of Translation Conventions that apply to Happy Feet or A Deepness in the Sky are in operations) are led on a journey to save a wolf pack from starvation by a whole menagerie of their own Animal Totems (my wife, who is much into the concept of Animal Totems, thinks it's really trippy to see what essentially are animals with their OWN Animal Totems, especially when one stops to consider that Balto himself is the son of the White She-Wolf who is herself an Animal Totem, making both Balto and Aleu special for the same reason as were the greater Greek Heroes).

Disney's version of Pocahontas, being not only a Disney (literal) Princess (the daughter of the Powhatan, who is a native king) but also a (literal) Magical Native American (she's a shamaness who can manifest serious real-world powers), gets two Spirit Animal Helpers (Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird), a Spirit Mentor (Grandmother Willow) and to top it off seduces away Ratcliffe's pet dog Percy.  This may count as a sort of spirit overload and is conducive to parody, but in the movie it sure works.

Why it is that Spirit Animal Helpers are more attached to heroines than heroes in the Western animation tradition is not obvious, though it may reflect some sort of idea that women (especially maidens) are at one and the same time more spiritual (the Victorian concept of Exalted Womanhood or the pre-Christian concept of the Maiden as aspect of the Goddess) and more fundamental to life (women bear and raise babies) than men (who can rarely attain the purity of the Maiden or the Natural importance of the Mother.

It is interesting that it is more often villainesses than villains who get Spirit Animal Helpers.  This connects to the tradition of Evil Witchcraft, and before that to the concepts of the Fates and the Goddess in her aspect as the Crone.  Now, neither the Fates nor the Crone are inherently evil, but -- especially from the POV of the modern West, which is centered both on individual freedom (defying Fate) and youth (defying Age), these concepts of feminity are frightening (for that matter, they even frightened the ancients), so it is understandable that they would be seen as villainous in popular culture.


  1. That's odd. In the fairy tales if anything men are more likely to attract magical helpers that are animals.

    1. Was a frequency count ever done? I could believe it, of course, since the fairy tales come from a less sexually-egalitarian tradition than Western animation, so femaler characters are liable to be mere Prizes or Weaker Vessels (compare the original version of Aladdin's wife, who screws up the deal, with Disney's Jasmine, who repeatedly saves it). Not always, I know, but frequently enough to perhaps produce such a pattern.

    2. I think you need to expand your fairy tale reading horizon.

      Of course Aladdin's wife is just about a non-entity. There are plenty of fairy tales in which the prince whom the heroine marries is a non-entity.

    3. It's definitely true that in a lot of traditional folktales everything is very much from the POV of the main character, with other characters existing purely to aid or oppose that character. And the brides or grooms that the main characters receive at the end of many such tales are mere prizes.

  2. This was a fun read; I had to crack up when you put Happy Feet and Deepness in the same sentence. (I assume the translation convention is that we hear the animals as if they were speaking English, but humans in-universe don't?)

    Only one nitpick:

    The earliest example of this that I can think of from a full-length Western animated movie are the mice from Disney's Cindarella, who make the first version of her ball gown.

    Jiminy Cricket, man! I think he sets the basic tone for everything that comes after.

    1. I thought of that myself, and it is earlier. Pinocchio is technically male, though of a very strange sort (magical construct aka "golem"), and his extreme innocence means that he certainly needs a helper.

    2. Happy Feet and A Deepness in the Sky are similar in that we are being shown the behavior of alien beings with different mentalities (the animals in the first and the Spiders in the second) whose dialogue is being rendered as if they were humans speaking English.

      If you pay close attention to both Happy Feet movies, you will notice that the animals rarely if ever do anything of which it is actually impossible for them to conceive -- unlike in many Talking Animal movies, they really aren't as smart as humans. (Note in particular the part where the Amigos nearly strangle Lovelace in an attempt to save him -- Mumbles is smart enough to realize their efforts are just hurting him, but not smart enough to grasp just how the "talisman" might be removed. Particularly interesting is that while most animals seem to be speaking different "dialects" of a Common Tongue, the one group of animals other than the humans who does not share this dialect are the Orcas -- who of course may be fully sapient, just like Humans.

      In the case of the Spiders they are of course the intellectual equals of the Humans (in one obvious case, probably much smarter than the average Human), but they are much more alien to us intellectually than are the animals of Antarctica. Again, we are analogizing their thoughts, speech and actions into human terms: the sense is preserved but many of the nuances are lost. We see this at the end where the Spiders decide to spare the Emergents (who have just wrecked their planet) -- but they do so for experimentation. The Spiders are both kinder and crueller than Humans; they don't entirely fit our emotional terms.

    3. Thanks for clarifying!

      Have you ever read Blindsight? It seems like the kind of thing you'd get a kick out of, and it has a similar deal - the main character's profession is to translate incomprehensibly-specialist language from one group to another. He comments at one point that the (inhumanly intelligent) group of crewmen in the story are actually communicating in highly-expressive grunts and gestures, but he downgrades it into English for our benefit.

  3. On film, a woman shown on screen alone is a woman in peril of being raped and murdered. Having a magical animal companion means that the girl is not alone.

    And you have to sleep sometime, so it really is handy on an adventure.