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Sorry, movies: Most animals just want to eat us

You want to know what happens when you believe the cliches of animal movies? You get eaten is what happens. There is no truth to the movie idea that animals are more noble than humans or that they use minor setbacks to fuel their desire to win. No, what animals want to do is eat as much as they can. And if you get in the way of that — like misguided Timothy Treadwell, who decided to live with be
/ Source: TODAY contributor

You want to know what happens when you believe the cliches of animal movies? You get eaten is what happens.

There is no truth to the movie idea that animals are more noble than humans or that they use minor setbacks to fuel their desire to win. No, what animals want to do is eat as much as they can. And if you get in the way of that — like misguided Timothy Treadwell, who decided to live with bears in the documentary "Grizzly Man" — you may become lunch.

Luckily, horses such as "Secretariat," the star of the heroic horse movie that opens Oct. 8, are not meat eaters. In fact, that may be why horses are such popular movie subjects. They have the title roles in "My Friend Flicka," "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," "Seabiscuit," "The Black Stallion" and "National Velvet." "Secretariat" itself tells the story of a horse who was thought not to have the endurance to win the 1973 Triple Crown.

But of course he did. And according to the film, he followed a well-trod path of animal-movie cliches to get there.

The underdog hero

"Shiloh" the beagle is abused and undernourished. "Seabiscuit" loses his first 10 races. The sled dogs of "Eight Below" are deserted for a year, surviving with almost no food or shelter. The killer whale in "Free Willy" is about to be killed himself.

Part of what we love about animal movies is the familiarity of their characters and plot devices. That's why every animal movie requires an underdog even if, in the case of "Secretariat," the real animal had virtually no flaws. The movie depicts both the horse and its owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), as triumph-against-the-odds types, even though Secretariat won virtually every major race he entered and Chenery was a socialite who turned down multimillion-dollar offers for the lucrative horse farm she inherited.

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Admittedly, Secretariat was considered too much of a speed demon to muster the stamina to compete in endurance races. But he was too fast? That's a handicap?

The unorthodox trainer who relates to animals better than people

In "Dreamers," it's a girl (Dakota Fanning) who is convinced her infertile horse can become both a winner and a parent. In "Free Willy," it's a homeless urchin whose streetsmarts help him train a killer whale to push beach balls off peoples' noses. In "Seabiscuit," it's a near-hobo (Chris Cooper) who insists on hiring a hot-tempered jockey because he believes he'll match up well with the equally miffed horse.

"Secretariat" has French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who is like a laundry list of iconoclasm. He claims to despise horses and their owners. He wears pink, orange and turquoise plaid get-ups that the "Real Housewives of Louisville" would dismiss as too out there. And he insists on speaking in French to the horse and then repeating in English what he has said so the movie won't have to use subtitles.

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It goes without saying that Laurin succeeds with his methods (basically, he lets Secretariat run any time Secretariat feels like it), and that somehow nobody else has ever thought of them.

The setback

Sometimes, it's real-estate developers: The "Furry Vengeance" squirrels, otters and bears are about to lose their forest homes to an enclave of McMansions. Sometimes, it's being taken away from the familiarity of home: King Kong demonstrates that you can take the freakishly large ape out of the jungle but you can't take the jungle out of the ape.

Secretariat's setback is a toothache. Yup, the one thing standing between him and the Triple Crown was an abscessed tooth that slowed him down in a disastrous warm-up before the Kentucky Derby. A little equine dental floss and he was good to go.

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The big finish

It will be accompanied by rousing, get-your-tear-ducts-ready-for-a-workout music. It will be in slow motion. And the slow motion will give us time to realize that, in addition to triumph (winning the race or earning best-in-show or garnering funds to save an entire mountainside habitat, as in "Gorillas in the Mist"), the animal has also taught humans a Valuable Life Lesson. This is particularly true of horse-racing movies, which abide by both the cliches of animal movies and sports movies.

Just like "Babe" getting his ribbon or the geese finally figuring out how to migrate south in "Fly Away Home," Secretariat rounds the final curve of his final race one agonizing second at a time. As he inches toward the finish line of the Belmont Stakes, a gospel choir bursts into "Oh, Happy Day," asserting that, in addition to superior breeding and training, God was also on Secretariat's side. And that Penny Chenery was right to believe that her horse loved giving it everything he had.

If movie animals don't want to save us, they want to kill us

Most movies indicate that animals want nothing more than to please humans, whether that means copping a trophy at a dog show ("Best in Show"), bringing together a neighborhood of loners ("Because of Winn-Dixie") or croaking to unite a family in grief ("My Dog Skip," "Marley & Me," "The Yearling"). Secretariat, we are told, loves chit-chatting with owner Penny Chenery. He also enjoys posing for snapshots and earning millions for gamblers by running until he drops.

But movie animals tend to be either for us or against us, with little middle ground. If they're not sacrificing themselves for human good, they're going for our throats, as demonstrated by the non-human stars of "Jaws," "Piranha," "Anaconda" and "Snakes on a Plane." None of those critters demonstrates any interest in saving our lives ("Firehouse Dog"), convincing us of the evils of consumer culture ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua") or saving the world from maniacs ("Cats & Dogs").

Secretariat doesn't do any of those things, either. But he does get to retire to a stud farm, where he has all the oats and fillies he wants. That may be the ultimate happy ending for a movie animal, whether it's a dog, a horse or a killer whale: Freedom from having to do stupid tricks for human co-stars.

Chris Hewitt is the movie critic for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.