Total Recall

Total Recall: Our Favorite Talking Animals

Narnia's Aslan inspires us to put together a list of our favorite talking animal movies.

by | May 14, 2008 | Comments

C.S. Lewis was no dummy. His Narnia books might have had all the necessary ingredients for success with the younger set — sweeping drama, larger-than-life action, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance, to name a few — but he must have known his ace in the hole was the fact that one of his main characters was a talking lion who wasn’t afraid to tear things up when the bad guys got out of hand. (Why do you think “The Lion” got top billing in that first book? Duh.) Now that the second film in Disney/Walden’s big-budget reimagining of the Narnia series, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, is heading to theaters, we here at RT thought it would be the perfect time to revisit some of our favorite theatrical talking animals.

Our parameters were fairly loose — the movies had to be live-action, and the animals had to, you know, talk — which enabled us to make our selections from across the animal kingdom without regard for Tomatometer, as you’ll soon see. Prepare to relive your fondest (and not-so-fondest) memories of chatty fauna in Hollywood — and, of course, to hit the comments section to take issue with our selections. It’s Total Recall!



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10. Paulie

Given the level of animosity he seems to inspire wherever he goes, you’d think a movie where a character voiced by Jay Mohr spends most of his time locked up in a cage and squawking for pet food would be a big hit — but unfortunately for Mohr, you’d be wrong. At 63 percent on the Tomatometer, Paulie is one of Mohr’s better-reviewed films — and okay, it stands out largely because it’s lumped in alongside titles like Are We There Yet? and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, but still, Mohr is at his most consistently charming here, as an unusually loquacious parrot whose search for his original owner (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, in her screen debut) sends him on a series of incredible adventures. Plus, you get Buddy Hackett in his final role. What’s not to like?

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9. Oh! Heavenly Dog

In one of the great cinematic pairings of the ’80s, box-office heavyweights Chevy Chase and Benji teamed up here for a crime caper about a private eye (Chase) whose death leaves him stranded between afterlife destinations, giving him a chance to return to Earth in the form of a stray dog (um, Benji) so he can punch his ticket to heaven by solving his own murder. Chase received top billing, but this is really a Benji movie, as evidenced by the involvement of director Joe Camp, who had already helmed a pair of features and a TV movie with the canine star. Both Benji and Chase would go on to make better movies, but none of them would include love scenes between Jane Seymour and a dog.



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8. The Shaggy Dog

For their first live-action feature-length comedy, Disney took an unused television pilot and turned it into one of the most successful films of 1959 (good Lord, it even outgrossed Ben-Hur). Tommy Kirk, fresh out of Old Yeller and on the brink of starring in seemingly every single live-action feature Disney made between 1960-65, takes the spotlight here as Wilby Daniels, the goggle-eyed teenage na�f who, thanks to a surprisingly intricate plot too complicated to go into here, winds up shuttling unpredictably back and forth between dog and human form. Though not exactly a critical favorite, The Shaggy Dog stands at a respectable 69 percent on the Tomatometer — and was, perhaps most importantly, responsible for Fred MacMurray’s late-period reincarnation as the go-to guy for films in need of cardigan-rockin’ dads.


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7. Charlotte’s Web

“Modern-day remake of beloved children’s classic” is a phrase that, nine times out of 10, is synonymous with cinematic disaster — but the 2006 film version of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web proved to be the exception to the rule, soaring to 78 percent on the Tomatometer and racking up over $80 million at the box office. Of course, casting the voice talents of Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, and Oprah Winfrey (as a horse, spider, rat, sheep, and goose, respectively) never hurts — but White’s timeless tribute to pan-species friendship has been resonating with readers young and old for over 50 years. Tell the story faithfully — as director Gary Winick and screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick did here — and the audience will follow. Some pig, indeed.

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6. Stuart Little

Michael J. Fox as an adorable talking mouse and Nathan Lane as a jealous cat named Snowbell. How’s that for perfect casting? And it gets better — M. Night Shyamalan and David O. Russell were just two of the writers involved in bringing E.B. White’s 1945 classic Stuart Little (66 percent) to the big screen, and the human cast includes Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie, and Jonathan “The Human Head Weighs Eight Pounds” Lipnicki. It isn’t hard to see how the budget topped $100 million — or why Columbia earned it back, and then some. As White’s plucky protagonist and his arch-enemy, Fox and Lane helped make the film a hit with parents as well as kids — and helped make kid-friendly voicework appealing to actors with bigger box-office clout than, say, Jay Mohr.

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5. Francis

Before there was Jason, before there was Freddy, there was Francis the Talking Mule. Novelist David Stern’s creation was the inspiration for an incredible seven films, starting with 1950’s Francis (and ending, unfortunately, with 1956’s Francis in the Haunted House, which featured none of the actors from the first six installments). The plot — as with Jason and Freddy — was always basically the same, dropping soldier Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor) into a ridiculous situation where he had to be bailed out by his sarcastic, braying friend (voiced by Chill Wills). Stirling’s penchant for ill-advised honesty when it came to Francis’ special talents invariably landed him under some sort of psychiatric observation, until the movie’s final act, when everyone realized he’d been telling the truth all along. Until the next movie, of course.

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4. Joe’s Apartment

Skits and short films rarely benefit from being turned into feature-length films — just ask Lorne Michaels — but as soon as MTV started airing brief clips of talking, singing, dancing cockroaches in the early ’90s, a Joe’s Apartment movie was a foregone conclusion. The film’s 12 percent Tomatometer speaks for itself, but this earnest tale of cockroaches with hearts of gold is still the only place to hear Billy West, Dave Chappelle, and Jim Turner voicing lifelike bugs, and it offers a tantalizing glimpse of the career Jerry O’Connell was building for himself before he wrote the First Daughter screenplay and became the world’s foremost Tom Cruise impersonator.

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3. The Wizard of Oz

All right, so maybe this is fudging a little — but what kind of talking animals list would be complete without a nod to Bert Lahr’s turn as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz? Victor Fleming’s adaptation of the L. Frank Baum classic boasts a 100 percent Tomatometer rating for many reasons, not the least of which is Lahr’s iconic performance. In Baum’s book, the Lion gets his courage from a bottle, but Fleming and company understandably shied away from that idea; instead, his film counterpart finds it inside himself, and is rewarded with a shiny new medal. Lahr went on to acquire some hardware of his own, winning a Tony Award for his performance in the 1964 musical Foxy, but to most of us, he’ll always be best remembered as the guy who sang “If I Were the King of the Forest.”

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2. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books sat around for over five decades before someone started making blockbuster live-action epics out of them. The missing ingredients? CGI technology — and the gravitas-drenched voice of Liam Neeson as Aslan, the titular lion. Announced as having been awarded the role just five months before the film’s release — and only after director Andrew Adamson bumped his original choice for Aslan’s voice, Brian Cox. Neeson, of course, was perfect for the role, and although he can’t take all the credit for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe‘s 76 percent Tomatometer rating (or its nearly $300 million gross), his involvement certainly didn’t hurt. Neeson has described Aslan’s role in the upcoming Prince Caspian as more “parental” — here’s hoping the movie still makes room for him to lay some smack down.

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1. Babe

Yes, it’s true: A film about a talking pig who enters a sheepdog competition really was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It was nominated for seven Oscars, actually — and came away with one, for Best Visual Effects. This George Miller-adapted fable (taken from the Dick King-Smith book) built a lot of buzz thanks to its then-state-of-the-art visuals, but it earned its 98 percent Tomatometer rating based on the story’s big heart, and a terrific cast that included the voices of Christine Cavanaugh (as Babe) and Hugo Weaving (as Rex the sheepdog) — not to mention James Cromwell, whose laid-back turn as Farmer Hoggett earned him a Best Actor nomination and boiled his long, distinguished career down into five words: “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”

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Dishonorable Mention – Howard the Duck

A Lucasfilm release based on one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved second-string characters — a wisecracking, cigar-chomping alien duck. A cast including Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins. A soundtrack featuring Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, and Joe Walsh. What could go wrong? The answer, of course, is “everything” — thanks largely to a nigh-incomprehensible mess of a plot that virtually ignored the comics, Howard the Duck went down in history as an enormous flop, earning the almost universal enmity of critics (look at that 19 percent Tomatometer rating!) and making back less than half of its $40 million budget back during its American theatrical run. Howard the Duck has never even been released on DVD here in the States — and in a marketplace that has room for a 10th anniversary deluxe edition of Tommy Boy, that’s really saying something.

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