Interrupting animals

At the end of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), a peacock belonging to a local aristocrat escapes from his master’s house and lands in the town square. It’s snowing at the time and the film’s young men are throwing snowballs, but the sight of the peacock stops them in their snowy tracks. It’s a powerful scene, but not a unique one in cinema by any stretch of the imagination.

The unexpected presence of wildlife is a common motif in cinema. While many of the scenes incorporating this device serve a purpose in the plot, it also serves as a reminder of the majesty and inscrutability of nature.

One of the most notable recent examples of this motif is in writer-director Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. In this case, the motif contributes to the plot of the film as well as the themes. The titular character, played by George Clooney, exits his car in order to admire some horses that are grazing on a hill near the road.

Clayton approaches the horses carefully and finds that they do not withdraw when he approaches.

Clooney’s awestruck face, the beauty of the horses and the haunting soundtrack make this scene one of the more memorable in the film. It breaks the tension and shows us a side of Clayton we have not seen before. It also advances the plot (spoiler ahead) in an important way by taking Clayton out of his car when it explodes.

A more character driven scene occurs in Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller Collateral. The car containing the assassin Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, and cab driver Max Durocher, played by Jamie Foxx, is forced to stop to let two coyotes cross the street. The second coyote looks Vincent and Max in the eyes, while Audioslave’s “Shadow on the Sun” plays and Vincent watches the creature with a puzzled look.

The scene was inspired by a similar experience Mann had, and the coyote is popularly interpreted as a metaphor for the character of Vincent. Whatever its significance to the characters in the film, the coyote reminds viewers of the world outside Max’s car and human oversight.

One of the most controversial “animal interruption” scenes is the wolf scene from Wes Anderson’s animated adaptation The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl. The film stars George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox and Meryl Streep as the voice of Mrs. Fox. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Mr. Fox, who has a phobia of wolves, sees a black wolf in the distance. After attempting to greet the wolf in English, Latin and French, Mr. Fox raises his fist and the wolf responds in kind.

Once again the animal — and in this case his inability or refusal to communicate — reminds us of nature’s inscrutability. However, the fact that the wolf is black — which is to say its fur is black — and the similarity of Mr. Fox’s gesture to the sign of the Black Power movement have convinced some, such as Slate’s Lauren Bans, that this scene is a metaphor for an upper middle class white man’s learning not to fear a “scary” black man. Others note that the raised fist is a gesture of solidarity in contexts outside racial struggles and argue that the wolf is not a metaphor for a black man but for Mr. Fox’s “wild side.” Indeed, Bans’s reaction is sensationalist, and it obscures the beauty of the scene. Not only does it contribute to the development of Fox’s character, it does what all scenes like it do: leaves us with a sense of awe.

The sudden appearance of wild animals in cinema serves different purposes in different films, but they produce at least one common effect: an appreciation of the majesty and mystery of the world around us.