Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.
They say to never work with children or animals, but men have no end of famous animal-human interactions on screen – be it with a bird (Kes), horse (War Horse), shark (Jaws), CGI tiger (Life of Pi), or a whole menagerie of animals (Doctor Dolittle in all his reincarnations from 1967 to 2020). In all fairness, women have their animal moments too, from the iconic Tippi Hedren in 1963’s The Birds, to Emma Stone and Emma Thompson’s cavorting with terrifying Dalmatians in Cruella, and ringmaster’s wife Reese Witherspoon performing aside an elephant in Water for Elephants. A young Anna Paquin leads a flock of orphaned Canada geese in Fly Away Home, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) adventures with armoured bears and shape-shifting animal daemons in The Golden Compass, and Jennifer Aniston breaks hearts in Marley & Me.
Nothing beats an animal sidekick too, and Disney princesses do it better than most! Rapunzel has her sarcastic chameleon (and frying pan: that thing basically has a life of its own), Moana has a daft chicken, and Snow White has a whole host of woodland creatures at her beck and call. And then there’s the sidekicks in live actions – from the adorable pet pig of Dakota Fanning in Uptown Girls to Leslie Mann’s suitably hilarious antics with a frankly enormous dog in The Other Woman. We can’t finish without mentioning the icon himself, the Gemini vegetarian, Bruiser Woods in Legally Blonde, and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.
Our top five films for this month feature an iconic Disney villain, an adorable book adaptation with talking farm animals, a true story of heroics in a Polish zoo in the Second World War, the best anthropomorphised animated animal film ever made (a bold claim I’ll stand by), and a South Korean masterpiece that uses a genetically-modified beast to raise questions regarding consumerism and the ethics of the meat industry. Without further ado…
(1996, Dir.: Stephen Herek)
Of those of us who grew up in the 90s and adored this film, who else both a) desperately wanted a Dalmatian puppy, and b) tried their hand at sketching animal print clothes designs on the back of the Argos catalogue (designs which obviously did not consider the nefarious sources of Cruella’s chosen fabrics)? Just me? In what is perhaps her most iconic role – which is saying something given her glittering career – Glenn Close plays evil fashion designer Cruella DeVil, who plots to steal Dalmatian puppies to make a fur coat. This 1996 remake of the 1961 animated film of the same name has also spawned a recent live-action prequel, Cruella, with Emma Stone in the titular role, giving yet more airtime to one of Disney’s most famous villains.
101 Dalmatians is available to stream on Disney+
(2006, Dir.: Gary Winick)
In this adaptation of the classic 1952 novel by E. B. White, a young girl, Fern (Dakota Fanning), rescues a piglet named Wilbur, but he knows that come the end of the season and once he is grown he will end up on the family’s dinner table. Alongside a host of animal characters in Fern’s uncle’s barn, he hatches a plan with Charlotte – a spider that lives in his pen and voiced by Julia Roberts – to save his life. Fanning won the Blimp Award for Favourite Movie Actress for her part in the film at the 2007 Kids’ Choice Awards.
Charlotte’s Web is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video
(2017, Dir.: Bong Joon Ho)
From Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho comes Okja, the tale of a young girl (Seo-hyun Ahn) who raises a genetically modified “super pig” – the titular Okja – and risks everything to rescue her best friend after it is taken to the United States and mistreated by the meat industry. The film is a joint American and South Korean project, and has an outstanding ensemble cast, with the likes of Tilda Swinton, Lily Collins, and Shirley Henderson. Okja was met with disapproval at the Cannes Film Festival as audiences booed when the Netflix logo appeared (Cannes famously and vocally protested Netflix films’ lack of theatrical releases into French cinemas) but was eventually rewarded with a four-minute standing ovation as the credits rolled.
Okja is available to stream on Netflix
The Zookeeper’s Wife
(2017, Dir.: Niki Caro)
Based on a true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife charts the heroic actions of Antonia and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), the keepers of Warsaw Zoo. During the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War they saved the lives of hundreds of Polish Jews. Screenwriter Angela Workman based the screenplay off Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book of the same name, which utilised the real-life diaries of Antonia Źabińska, which were published in 1968 as People and Animals. While aspects of the film are obviously works of fiction, the Zabinskis’ astonishing central defiance of the Nazi occupation and rescue of over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto are depicted accurately.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video
(2016, Dir.: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush)
In this delightfully clever Disney animation, a rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) overcomes the odds to become the first rabbit officer in the Zootropolis Police Department, and then must join forces with a con artist fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) to foil a conspiracy. It’s hard to overstate just how brilliant this film is. The animals are anthropomorphised in the most genius of ways: see security guard polar bears, a lion as mayor, and sloths at the DMV. It is a richly detailed and beautifully animated film, which is not only a feast for the eyes, but also offers up subtle critiques on race relations, prejudice, and stereotypes. Come for the exciting and wholesome children’s film, stay for the sexy dancing tigers in the end credits. Yes, really.
Zootropolis is available to stream on Disney+
About the Author: Emma Forth
I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.