One of the underdiscussed joys of cinema, at least if you’re an animal lover, are the non-human creatures that swim, gallop, slither, hop, and play across the screens. Debates continue about the use of non-human actors onscreen, but animal characters can be as memorable as their human scene partners whether they’re computer generated, stop motion puppets, or furry or feathered actors. 2022’s cinema gave us the full menagerie. Among the most memorable “real” animals, for better and worse, were Empire of Light’s wounded pigeon, A Man Called Otto’s feral yet easily domesticated cat, Everything Everywhere All At Once’s weaponized pom, the homicidal chimp and lion of Nope and Beast, respectively, and Babylon’s diarrhetic elephant. If you prefer fantastical beasties, the titular animated characters from The Sea Beast, My Father’s Dragon, and DC League of Super Pets had their charms while “Socks” the robot cat of Lightyear was that misjudged film’s MVP.
Speaking of fantastic, the following list is dedicated to Meilin in Turning Red for embracing her inner red panda, even if she isn’t technically eligible being an all-too relatable teenage human girl person…
BE WARNED SPOILERS FOLLOW
DOZEN BEST SCREEN ANIMALS OF 2022
RUNNERS UP: Toothgrinder and Toothgnasher (goats) Thor: Love & Thunder
How is that Thor: Ragnarok was such a breath of fresh air and easily the best of the Thor movies while Thor: Love & Thunder feels so hackneyed and embarssingly cocky (given what it’s delivering)? Tis a mystery we have no desire to solve (as that would require a revisit). One very annoying joke that does work is the running gag about these screaming flying goats. The very loud joke gets funnier through sheer annoying persistence.
12 Saiwa (gorilla) My Father’s Dragon
Though My Father’s Dragon is pitched to the very young, one surprise for adults is the subtle flip of feelings for Saiwa, expertly voiced by Ian McShane. At first this gorilla who commands the whole magical island reads as pure threatening villain but this is not the whole story and we first begin to see traces of it in the way other animals cling to him.
11 Bennie (monkey) The Fabelmans
“I needed a laugh,” Mitzi Fabelman explains, rationalizing her impulsive decision to add a monkey to the already crowded family home. It only figures that every time we see Bennie thereafter he’s stubbornly attached to Burt, her steady-stressed husband who eventually catches any curveball Mitzi throws the family’s way.
10 Death (wolf) in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
It’s been some time since a kid’s movie risked a villain this potentially frightening for small children, with his glowing red eyes and genuinely unnerving speed and weapons. Death is exquisitely voiced by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Futuro Beach, Narcos) who is eager to wrap things up with the cat who has escaped him 8 times.
07 THREE-WAY DOGGIE TIE
Sammy (sheepdog) in The Banshees of Inisherin
Lulu (dog) Dog
Perrito (cat dog) Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Most cinematic years include abundant dog characters. That’s understandable since Dog’s best friend, Man, is the one writing and directing the movies. But this year we have three we’re glad we didn’t have to live without. Who can forget Sammy dancing with his miserably depressed human (Brendan Gleeson)? Later he even attempts to save him from himself by sneaking off with a pair of garden shears with the most sheepish look a sheepdog has ever given. Lulu, the charismatic titular star of Dog, wasn’t exactly cuddly but who can blame her? Her journey recovering from PTSD on a roadtrip with a friend of her human’s (Channing Tatum) gave us one of the first box office hits of the year. And finally at the tail end (sorry) of the year, we got a tiny dog with a big heart pretending valiantly to be a cat and stealing audiences hearts in the process. Puss in Boots The Last Wish gets bonus points for voice-casting the always endearing Harvey Guillén (What We Do in the Shadows) to play adorable Perrito.
06 Marcel (?) Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
We have been informed that Marcel is not a snail as we once dimly believed (possibly even the entire time watching the movie), but actually just an empty carapace. A shell that is inexplicably alive and even more inexplicably comes from a whole line of shells that are also alive and can apparently reproduce. That doesn’t make, Marcel the YouTube phenomenon turned movie star any less adorable of course. It makes him even more special.
05 Jean Jacket (?) Nope
Jean Jacket’s particulars are best left to discover in Jordan Peele’s latest thrilling movie. But whatever other traits Jean Jacket possesses, it’s definitely a fashionista.
04 Racacoonie (Racoon) Everything Everywhere All At Once
Not every movie could get away with a running gag based on a zany malapropism from an entirely different. Everything Everywhere All At Once being all movies (in a way) gets away with it. This little beast also has a sweet gig; Who wouldn’t want to play puppeteer with Harry Shum Jr, adorable in any universe.
03 Payakan (tulkun) Avatar: The Way of Water
We suspect one of the reasons people have always been so reluctant to give Avatar its due (remember all the silly easily disprovable naysaying about ‘no cultural footprint’?) is its earnestness. Yet one of the reasons it works is just that. James Cameron’s absolute belief in his own work makes you believe, too. You believe against all odds that tulkuns can talk to Navi, compose poetry and songs, and, specifically, for this list’s purposes, that Payakan has a whole emotional specific narrative history of his own; once you buy into that you can always thrill at his choices and active participation in The Way of Water’s third act showdown.
01 [TIE] Jenny (miniature donkey) The Banshees of Inisherin and EO (donkey) EO
According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2022 was the Year of the Tiger (and will be still until January 22nd, making the Chinese calendar much closer to Oscar’s own calendar). Global cinema begged to differ, definitely claiming it the Year of the Donkey. Not one, not two, but three award-winning movies deployed donkeys for dramatic and comic effect and in two cases, full characters! Triangle of Sadness’ doomed donkey (poor thing) was almost entirely an offscreen presence but a memorable one, moving from unseen danger to pitiable victim in one violent surivalist moment. (It’s also a possibly foreshadowing beat depending on how you read the ending).
A donkey gets an extremely rare leading role in the incredible EO (Poland’s Oscar finalist in Best International Film). At once rigorously controlled and improvisational feeling, Jerzy Smolikowski’s sensational directing asks us to see ponder contemporary Europe, and man’s contradictory relationship to animals, while we imagine the inner life of the titular donkey. At turns funny, enchanting, frightening, mysterious, and tragic, the film is never lazily pandering; EO remains unknowably alien despite our familiarity and emotional attachment. In surprising news, given its art film bonafides, EO has been a success at the box office and has earned almost half a million to date in US arthouses.
And so we arrive at the most scene-stealing attraction from this year’s screen menagerie: Jenny. The miniature donkey of The Banshees of Inisherin has abundant personality and charm. She goes on long walks with her pitiable suddenly friendless “owner” Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and yearns to live in the house with him. This doesn’t sit well with Siobhan (Kerry Condon) who shoos Jenny out. “Animals are for outside!”. Oh Siobhan, Jenny is no beast of burden but a proper pet. Martin McDonagh’s crafty screenplay understands this, with all the projection and anthropomorphics that entails. Pádraic comes to his miniature friend’s defense “She just wants a bit of company.” As does Pádraic. As do we all.