The antics of animal characters offer kids much more than mere cutesy entertainment
You haven't seen Jungle Book yet?" I'm asked a lot these days. The movie must be a magnificent watch. It's just that my mind still swirls with sights and sounds from Disney's enchanting earlier version. But, be it the pure animation classic or the new CGI action adventure, millions of children and adults across the world find both films fabulous.
Why does the device of assigning human traits to animals — called anthropomorphism — from the most ancient myths, fables, fairytales and fiction, work so delightfully? Because animals cast in human role play are as reassuring as they are whimsical. They allow emotional distance when what seeks to be expressed is too powerful or painful, in a way human characters do not.
They give kids temporary relief from dilemmas (not the same as escapism), and a safe space where they breathe and reflect on life choices. "What would Roly Robin do?" I wondered each time I debated something bothering me. I was a schoolgirl fan of the chirpy Robin family's exploits, adorably serialised in the Woman's Weekly magazine my mother subscribed to for recipes, romances and knitting patterns.
My children were as passionate about their animal favourites as toddlers. Not quite four years old, on the morning his sister was born, my son peered into her hospital cot and took gallant charge. "Mummy looks tired, let me tell you a story," he whispered, bending to pour a Babar the Elephant tale into her shell-small ears. The brainchild of Jean de Brunhoff, dressed in natty spats and determined to forge ahead in the world, Babar is hard to beat for smart individuality.
When said baby daughter got to age four, she obsessed enough over Tweety Bird for us to buy her bed linen with the Warner Bros canary printed on it. Distressed when she thought the sheet would make Tweety "grow" in the dark - she misheard me saying it was from Bombay Dyeing's "glow in the dark" range — she wept to see how night after night of snuggling down with Tweety didn't result in the yellow bird becoming any bigger!
Birds, mice or rabbits, cats, dogs or fish, bears, horses or elephants...non-humans peopling the nursery world are universally and instantly related to. Animal characters also break barriers of race, colour, gender and nationality. Free of such insulting and insulating boxes, kids connect closer, with a strong sense of metaphor and vivid imagination. Editions of Richard Scarry's Busytown books changed progressively to mirror social change, his anthropomorphic characters as politically correct as humans are expected to be in reality.
A literary bear I've always been partial to in The Hundred Acre Wood created by AA Milne is Winnie the Pooh. Red shirt endearingly stretched only halfway down his tubby belly, Pooh joins his pals Tigger, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo to learn that we need to celebrate differences, everyone needs someone and never blindly trust authority.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains in his seminal book, The Uses of Enchantment: "In play, toy animals are used to embody aspects of the child's personality which are complex, unacceptable and contradictory for him to handle. This permits the child's ego to gain mastery over these elements, which he cannot do when forced to recognise them as projections of his own inner processes."
Older children ponder over promise and betrayal on the pages of a revolutionary satire like George Orwell's Animal Farm. Or start thinking about self-perfection and transcendence in Richard Bach's spiritual allegory, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It could be reasonably assumed that readers emerge less judgemental and more forgiving of the foibles of animals than of humans caught in the same situations.
Back in Kipling's forest fantasia, I hear Colonel Hathi memorably march to "Hup, two three four/Keep it up, two three four"... Apparently comic, actually heroic, he's galumphed into our hearts. Ever ready to answer the call of duty, he is respectful and responsible, displaying dignity and courage. He shows grace under pressure, obeys laws of the land for the larger good.
The cleverness of anthropomorphism stops his story from becoming a boring homily. This may well be the animals' ultimate triumph — they never preach plus they're great fun. Which kid wouldn't want that?
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