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Anthropomorphism in Cinema and the Human Identity

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Anthropomorphism, a whole mouthful of a word that can on the surface seem overly complex for what it is describing, is a concept that has been crucial for understanding the human condition and how we understand ourselves as well as relate to one another since the very beginning until our contemporary moment. In most cases outside of more academic spheres, the formal term seems to mostly appear as aid for the punchline of a joke (such as in this amazing article from The Onion) rather than as an indicator of a concept that reveals deep insight into human psychology. Ruminations about anthropomorphism such as these came up recently with the release of and acclaim for Jerzy Skolimowski’s 2022 film, EO, which made quite a bit of noise at Cannes but are more specifically inspired by the tidbit given to us by Paul Schrader in one of his many Facebook Film Reviews:

While Schrader can be known for being either extremely direct or quite vague when it comes to describing the qualities of movies in these reviews, there is something so quietly beautiful in this description that seems to match that same essence of the movie. After finding this brief and profound review on a film that I personally have been excited for, I decided to write this blog and ponder on the concept of anthropomorphism and why the action of anthropomorphizing is so instinctual and ingrained within our creative selves. 

Sitting on the shoulders of the mountains of work and research from a long lineage of anthropologists, archeologists, and researchers (all with their own troubled histories to be aware of), we have seen that some of the oldest known artwork since the beginning of recorded history and deep into pre-recorded history has harbored elements of anthropomorphism. We’ve seen many examples, most of which tend to fall into the category of zoomorphic art, in which animals are personified and depicted with human qualities. One quite famous example is The Lion Man statue, which dates back 40,000 years and depicts a half-man, half-bear creature, carved out of mammoth ivory. It has been a fundamental piece in understanding the history of spiritual and religious beliefs among humans, as the statue has been posited as having been used in rituals and as a storytelling device as it was passed down through generations. Not only does the statue show how far back aspects of anthropomorphism in art go, but it also underscores two crucial vessels in which anthropomorphism has thrived and continues to do so: storytelling and religion.

Not only does one of the oldest pieces of zoomorphic art with aspects of anthropomorphism in its depiction have a connection to early religious beliefs, but most all the religions that the world has seen have applied symbolism through associating certain ideals or connotations with various images of animals. (This has also been done in non-religious fashion.) Christianity and its umbrella of further codified churches and branches, for example, have held tight to a dozen or so symbols of animals that have since permeated world cultures (especially those of the occident), such as the Dove (classically referring to the Holy Spirit but also a greater symbol of peace and love), the Lamb (representing Christ but also innocence and meekness), the Snake (representing the Devil but also a generally deceitful creature), and of course the oddly controversial yet also difficult to escape symbol of the fish that is connoted with Jesus, whether through parables that relate to feeding with the animal or general themes of fertility and prosperity. While the connotations with all of these vary with region, religion, and culture, these of course have been very popular iterations of the interpretations of said images. Just further south from the North American outlet of the global north, in the areas once considered Mesoamerica, the image of the snake was much more highly regarded and worshiped by the Yucatec Maya in the form of the deity K’uk’ulkan. Across the North Atlantic, the snake also took the form of Jörmungandr, aka the World Serpent, for followers of Norse religions. All three aforementioned iterations of the serpent have been depicted as speaking or communicating in some form (usually to humans/mortals), an ability that has been mostly designated as a trait inherent to humans, further solidifying the history and importance of the anthropomorphizing of these creatures.

An ironic and almost paradoxical situation that seems to have unintentionally come out of this lineage of anthropomorphism with animals through the span of religious texts and has become more severe with the passing of time and the creation/expedited advancement of organized societies is the distancing of the concept of “the human” away from that of “the animal.” While earlier humans and the ideas they displayed through crude works and texts showed that they found a greater awareness of the affinity and similarity between themselves and animals, long before concrete understandings about evolution were developed, at some point there came a radical shift to considering animals in a separate hierarchy seen as is inferior (or even sometimes superior) to that of homo sapiens. That change seems to be undocumented, as the earliest moments of recorded history already saw certain animals being used as aids to human work and travel while others were considered sacred or even as deities above humans.

While human perception of the relation to and importance of animals fluctuated throughout the whole of human history, animals’ presences were never absent from that which humans created or recorded. All forms of the visual, literary, and performing arts – from the earliest instances to more modern periods as well as until the contemporary moment – have utilized animals and creatures or objects personified that fit into the category of anthropomorphism. The fables and fairy tales that descend from morality-based religious storytelling created the groundwork for the emergence of children’s literature, where anthropomorphism was used heavily as a tool to appeal to children (and thus transfer certain philosophies and morals unto younger generations), leading to the crafting of many notable characters and stories. Two of the most crucial pieces which still has great influence over the whole of children’s literature and the greater world of storytelling culture are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (which presents a world in which every creature and animal is personified with human characteristics) and The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (personifying the qualities of a human child into a wooden object). These works, along with many others that followed, continue to be retold, remade, and adapted for new generations of young viewers and persist in their reputations as literary classics.

The youngest of these artistic, storytelling mediums that is nonetheless equally as influenced by anthropomorphism and the stories that utilize it, is cinema. The earliest days of the birth of film technology saw the use of many animals in their stories, and the era of silent film as well as the transition to sound and color saw adaptations of fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz (1925, 1939) and Alice in Wonderland (1933), which prominently featured anthropomorphic creatures due to the source material being adapted. The lineage never ceased but instead grew exponentially with burgeoning techniques and methods of animation, which released the medium from the novelty of optical illusion that the flip book and Zoetrope (among others) offered. Once past the initial experimental stages, the techniques of classical animation allowed filmmakers to tell a whole host of stories using characters that were usually cartoonish in appearance and tended to be anthropomorphized animals or creatures. The Western, and more specifically – mostly American, history of animation through cartoons would start with Felix the Cat and continue with the iconic creations of Fleischer and Disney as new techniques for both sound and color increased the popularity of said animations tenfold.

As fascinating and in-depth the history of anthropomorphism and the use of personified animals in cinema during the 20th century is, only so much can be done within a single blog. The use of animals in film, especially ones that were personified with more human characteristics, exploded as film became an increasingly commercialized enterprise and certain movies became hyper-targeted towards specific demographics and now has left us with a laundry list of examples. Many people around or under the age of 40 will remember the slew of movies that took anthropomorphizing various animals (usually ones kept as pets, such as cats and dogs) to another level – building upon the formulas of movies before it, such as For the Love of Benji – with films such as The Adventures Of Milo and Otis and Air Bud, where the furry protagonists spoke (usually through narration) or performed actions normally only performed by humans. In my youth, I personally watched dozens of films with anthropomorphic characters, such as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Paulie, and Charlotte’s Web (2006).

The use of anthropomorphism doesn’t simply apply to animals, either. With the rise of accessible computing knowledge and the wave of revamped and re-stylized science fiction movies, we have seen the use and reuse of the narrative of AI and/or robots/cyborgs dealing with the consequences, implications, and dangers of sentience, dating back to examples such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Westworld. This led to popular instances of these themes in such films as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, and Alien. Along the same lines, horror movies (both good and bad) have been anthropomorphizing objects and turning them into killers with lusts for murder, such as the titular Chucky of the Child’s Play series, a gingerbread cookie in The Gingerdead Man, hundreds of tomatoes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a gelatinous mass with no identifying features whatsoever in both iterations of The Blob, and many, many more. Some of the more overlooked (yet more endearing) examples, which really embody the purpose at the heart of anthropomorphism, are instances that thoroughly mimic aspects of human society and/or life – and therefore aspects of the human condition – in order to take a step back from our constant immersion in it and then critique or satirize it. Some choice examples include a very recent and popular instance from the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once, in which the main protagonist and antagonist embody a set of rocks overlooking a canyon, Ottó Foky’s classic Scenes with Beans, most anything from the mind of Jan Švankmajer, such as Meat Love, and more that well deserve recognition. It is quite probable to link the neglect of such great uses to the spheres of animation or more experimental films that they come from and the neglect that these mediums have dealt with and continue to deal with, even in the face of a recent wave of artisanal work from maestros such as Guillermo Del Toro and his recent masterwork, Pinocchio. Yet inversely, there is also an ultra-saturation of anthropomorphism in mainstream animation from large studios, made to pander to children and without much (if any) cultural or artistic value.

Anthropomorphism has been utilized as a tool, an aid, a creative or stylistic choice, and a technique across mediums and forms in creative spheres as well in our quotidian, secular life. It has been studied and contested as to why we do it and why it is such a deep-seated behavior for humans, whether it lies in intellectual reasoning for creating explanations for unknown things or if it comes out of an emotional reasoning for one’s own comfort regarding the mysteries of the world around us. While there is no concrete answer for it, I believe (utilizing the ideas of the previous two possible explanations) that anthropomorphism is innately in tandem with our nature as storytellers. From our earliest records and findings on the nature of ourselves (homo sapiens), we have learned that we have always related our experiences to one another and passed these tales about both ourselves and all that which we do not understand down through generations. As shown by discoveries such as the Lion Man, anthropomorphism has played a key role in it all to flesh out our connections with religion and spirituality but also explain and describe characteristics of the elements, creatures, and objects of earth. It is a concept that will not be leaving anytime soon and something that I hope more people come to directly appreciate and think analytically about, rather than taking for granted in our oversaturated, overstimulated world. 

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