It will all end it tears

Sad animal movies are the hardest to watch

Keanu Reaves in “John Wick” (2014). DAVID LEE - © 2014 - SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

“It’s a bit sad,” advised a film critic friend, “but not punishing.” I was approaching Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO with trepidation, because I’d heard it was a sad donkey film. Sure enough, I welled up during the opening credits, even though at this point the donkey is still happy with his human handler in the circus, and then… NOOOOO! Only the unexpected appearance of Isabelle Huppert as a plate-smashing Italian Countess dried my tears, since she had nothing to do with the donkey and I couldn’t work out why she was in the film. But then it was back to NOOOOO! Please don’t turn the donkey into salami! “Not punishing”, my arse.

Kerry Condon as Siobhán Súilleabháin in “The Banshees of Inisherin” (2022). SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

Clearly 2023 is shaping up to be the Year of the Sad Donkey

Clearly 2023 is shaping up to be the Year of the Sad Donkey. Everyone is talking about The Banshees of Inisherin, which won three Golden Globes and is a contender for all this season’s other awards, including the Oscars, though at least that donkey wasn’t the saddest thing in the film. And don’t get me started on Skolimowski’s avowed inspiration for EO – Robert Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar (1966). In 50 years I’ve never managed to watch beyond the opening two minutes, already in tears because the baby donkey is adorable and I know Bresson doesn’t do comedy. Another film critic friend, astonished I had never seen this transcendental masterpiece, reassured me, “It’s a lovely ending; a flock of sheep encircles Balthazar so he isn’t alone as he dies.” Are you kidding? Just writing those words makes me all the more determined never to put myself through the rest.

Mateusz Kościukiewicz and the titular donkey of “EO” (2022). SIDESHOW AND JANUS FILMS

Exactly what is it about the death of animals in films? I can happily watch Alexander Skarsgård disembowelling everyone in The Northman, or even Bill Nighy slowly succumbing to stomach cancer in Living (both 2022). But show me a donkey being beaten up by football fans because he’s a rival team’s mascot, and I am blubbing fit to bust. And I’m not even a vegetarian!

My first cinema memory is of my mother taking me to Bambi. (Why, mum, why?) I successfully repressed that trauma until 30 years later, when it seemed like a bright idea to revisit the film as a hard-boiled adult. In a matinee teeming with carefree children who didn’t give a hoot that Bambi’s mother was dead, my trauma re-erupted in such convulsive sobbing that my concerned boyfriend seriously considered taking me out of the film.

It’s as though some cosmic puppet master has hooked me up to a Pavlov’s Dog demonstration that triggers crying instead of salivating. I only have to hear the phrase “Best doggone dog in the west” and bingo! An Old Yeller flashback, and blindly reaching for the box of Kleenex. The names of our fallen canine friends are etched on my heart: Rowf and Snitter from The Plague Dogs, Toots from Lassie, Hooch from Turner and Hooch, Skip from My Dog Skip and so forth.

Tom Hanks in “Turner and Hooch” (1989)

Sad dog movies are so ubiquitous there’s even a website called doesthedogdie.com, helping viewers steer clear of scenarios liable to trigger distress. And it’s not just donkeys and dogs. The deputy editor of this very journal recommended a 1976 British film called Escape from the Dark (1976), set around a colliery, where pit ponies have been condemned to the knacker’s yard, and small children with Yorkshire accents set out to save them. I sought it out, to humour her, only to find my contact lenses in danger of being washed away when a blind pony called Flash saves a bunch of miners trapped in a cave-in, and… No, I can’t go on.

Curiously, there seems to be no equivalent tradition of Sad Cat Movies. We ailurophiles have endured our fair share of cat-related sorrow through the years, yet when did you last see a film in which someone calls their cat “best doggone moggy in the west”? I was tempted to put it down to Hollywood’s notorious anti-cat bias, before remembering 1974’s Harry and Tonto, which netted Art Carney an Academy Award for Best Actor, probably because neither Al Pacino in Godfather Part II nor Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, nor any of the other nominees that year, made audiences bawl their heads off by singing “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” to their ailing ginger cat.

Art Carney in “Tonto” (1974)

Of course we’re aware that animal performers are (we hope) well treated on set, unless we’re talking about Italian cannibal movies of the 1970s and 1980s, in which case all bets are off. Perhaps the sad demise of donkeys, dogs, ponies, primates (poor King Kong!), even a spider (Charlotte’s Web!) is a reminder of our own mortality. Or perhaps the fictional animals for which we mourn are surrogates for the faithful companions we have outlived. Perhaps it’s their innocence, or their eagerness to please. Or a reminder that, in real life, all animals are doomed, and us along with them, thanks to humanity’s heedless greed and stupidity.

Obviously the best antidote for this kind of Weltschmerz is to rewatch John Wick (2014), in which Russian mobsters kill John Wick’s beagle puppy, and he proceeds to massacre everyone who had anything to do with it, which makes us feel a whole lot better.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, February 2023

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