Talking Animals: Yay or Nay or Meh?

Anthropomorphism– the attribution of human form or behavior to an object, animal.  I.E.- Anything done by Disney.

I think most of us grew up with something along these lines.  Whether it be a singing mouse, a trouble-making Wabbit, a lasagna-eating cat, and so many other characters, we’ve seen an anthropomorphized animal.  Today, many people think this is entirely about physical alterations and not the behavior.  I believe there is another term, but I forgot what it was and couldn’t find it on the Internet.

I’ve always found it strange when people argue over this topic.  Some feel that talking animals bring down the maturity of a story.  They cite Alice in Wonderland as if it’s a wholesome story and not a literary acid trip.  I’ve even run into some readers who believe every fantasy world needs some type of talking animal.  To be fair, they count dragons here.  Long ago, I got into a debate with someone who thought every world with magic has talking animals because a wizard set out to enchant all of them.  This person meant EVERY world and there was no questioning how there would always be a wizard with this bizarre fetish. As if Gandalf and Radagast got stoned and went on a bender in the forests, which is oddly believable after seeing the movies.  Finally, you have people who simply don’t care, which is the majority.

Personally, I think it all depends on the delivery, which is a phrase that should be inscribed on my chest.  I always say this because it’s true.  Nearly every literary trick depends on how the author does it.  A talking animal can fit into a world of magic, especially if they have either a back story for the ability or the power of speech is across the Animal Kingdom.  For example, unlike other Pokemon, Team Rocket’s Meowth can speak more than his name.  At some point, this is explained as him learning how to speak at the cost of being able to learn any more attacks.  At least this is what I heard when I paid attention.  So there’s a sacrifice for such a power in this case.

One thing that does annoy me is when every talking animal is friendly, except for the alpha predator.  The squirrels and rabbits are kind, but the grizzly is a serial killer?  The variety of human behavior seems to end at the universal beliefs about certain animals.  Prey animals are kind and predators are sociopaths.  I’ve spent time watching the squirrels around my house over the years.  There are some pretty mean squirrels out there, so to think all of them are nice is a mistake.  While we’re here, can someone explain why every animated duck from the old days seems to have some mental issue?  Daffy Duck is a conniving, greedy coward and Donald Duck is a rage-a-holic.  I’m not even going to get into the extended web-footed family here.

So, what do people think of talking animals or animals with human behavior?  Have any favorites or examples of it done horribly wrong?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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37 Responses to Talking Animals: Yay or Nay or Meh?

  1. The memories made me smile. The only thing I don’t enjoy is when an animal or character is given the ability to voice only one word or one sound. That makes me crazy. Otherwise, I leave to the writer.


  2. Nine times out of ten the instant an animal gains the ability to speak the tale becomes a children’s story for me whether that was the intent or not. Probably that’s Disney/Looney Tunes conditioning, but that’s what happens. The only exception I can think of is “Animal Farm,” perhaps because it was so chilling and turned my perception on its head. Goes to show that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”


    • Disney and Looney Tunes definitely created a stigma for talking animals. I’ve read a few fantasy books with talking beasts that aren’t child-friendly, but they’re few and far between. I read ‘Animal Farm’ a long time ago and chilling is definitely the word that comes to mind. I remember liking the workhorse.


  3. sknicholls says:

    There is something enchanted about talking animals. I grew up on them, so they always felt sort of natural. A most beloved book I feature today had them in it. I think they stimulate imaginations, both young and old.


  4. This raises the question, what about animal series like Warriors (Erin Hunter) or Sunwing (Kenneth Oppel). These feature societies of animals (cats and bats respectively) with a cosmology, political affiliations, etc. where the animals all talk among themselves just as humans would. They are extremely popular with 4th grade to about 10th grade.

    To me, as an adult, the talking animals work because it’s organic to the material rather than being tacked-on or some kind of rare exception. This is similar to the Narnia series, where the entire place is magical and every animal talks. I also don’t mind animal familiars which understand human concepts, because these are clearly special cases.

    What doesn’t work, for me, is when a fantasy hero has an animal companion (whether talking or not) who appears to be just an animal but has a fully human understanding without any explanation. An example of this would be the horse in “El Dorado” that behaves as if it had human understanding (albeit a childish human).


    • I forgot about Narnia. You make a good point about the animals being organic too. If they fit the world then they can be popular for all ages.

      I will admit to liking animals that act like humans, which seems to be horses. I think they’re exaggerated for kids movies, but a dog that behaves like a loyal companion in a book works for me. Dogs and horses seem to work because I’ve heard real life tales of them being almost human in behavior.


  5. They seem to show up in all flavors in The Jungle Book.


  6. kingmidget says:

    There was a scene in a Disney movie, I think it was Lion King, in which two animals kiss the way humans would kiss. I lost all interest in what Disney movies do with animal characters at that very moment. Maybe I’ve just become an old fuddy duddy, but I have no interest in animals that have human behaviors.


  7. L. Marie says:

    I’m glad you brought this up, because I have talking animals in my book. 🙂 I agonized over whether or not they would be seen as silly. I can’t help thinking of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. So well written. If ever I doubt that talking animals can be done well, I return to that book.


  8. aldreaalien says:

    I don’t mind talking animals. When it comes to human interaction, I think a lot of the reasons come down to personalities where, generally, the animal will sass the human.
    I thinking back on the stories I’ve read, I can only remember a few examples where speech was applied to -every- animal. Most of the time, it was just a few special, magical examples.


  9. I’ve read some pretty snarky and hilarious kids books with talking animals – or rather, animals that were as smart, if not smarter than their human companions (Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type series) and my favorite movie with talking animals was Bednobs and Broomsticks. That was definitely a kids movie, but it had a sly humor.


  10. renxkyoko says:

    I actually like takling animals, as long as they are all animals. I don’t like it if there’s a human talking to an animal, and the animal talks back.


  11. renxkyoko says:

    Oooops.. *talking*


  12. good post, I knew Rudyard kipling and Narnia would get a mention! funny reading you and king midget talking (you’re 34?!). I agree with Belinda, it depends on the writer and the delivery. Mythology from all over the world is littered with talking animals, I guess there is a time and a place for everything. Does a minotaur count as animal or monster?


    • I’d say minotaur is monster. Animals tend to be things that exist in the real world even if they’re anthropomorphized. Mythology is an interesting example because it tends to get a pass for talking animals without any big explanations. It’s not said to be solely for children either.


  13. LindaGHill says:

    The live-action talking animals creep me out. But other than that, I’m good with anything animated. 🙂


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