Issue 17

Animals with human voices: Can we ever find Nemo in real life?

Devanshi Daga

With Netflix’s new animation movie out, a look at the pros and cons of portraying animal species like us.

Hey! I found Nemo!” My five-year-old brother yelled at the top of his lungs. Dashing across the aquarium towards the orange clownfish. Pressing his nose against the cold thick glass separating Nemo and him. His eyes followed the fish, inside the deep blue water of the tank

Hi Nemo, do you want to be my friend?” He asked hopefully, staring at Nemo. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop is all he could hear as Nemo swam around. “He could speak in the movie, why is he not speaking up now?” As he glanced at the fish closely, it dawned.“The Nemo I know is so much cuter than this, I don’t know what this orange fish is.” He walked away, with his head down.

Animation movies with an animal protagonist continue to talk human. Walk like one too. Take the just out Netflix animated movie, Extinct. The movie follows two fuzzy-looking characters with holes on their stomachs, almost like a donut.With strange looking bunny ears and tiny floppy feet. 

Incredibly cute?

Realising they need to protect their species from going Extinct, the pair time-travel from 1835 Galapagos to Shanghai today. Interestingly, scrolling through the trailer’s comment section, one may find several “Aww”. But are these harmless looking fuzzballs in some way problematic? 

Depicting wild fauna with features of humans, the way we speak, express emotion and think, is anthropomorphism. Heavy word, right? But haven’t you seen instances in the mass media? Take Nemo in the movie Finding Nemo with forward-facing eyes, just like our species. Brushing  teeth like humans and going to school, for crying out loud! 

The real A. ocellaris clownfish, on the other hand, has outward-facing eyes. Or look at the movie Dumbo, where Dumbo the elephant is shown having an emotional outburst, crying hysterically. But in reality, research shows humans are the only ones who shed tears when sad. Animals display their emotions in other ways.

A 2020 research paper by an American non-profit organization, the Animals and Society Institute, says that using anthropomorphism in films can influence people’s attitudes towards animals in both a negative and positive manner. It may also impact how they expect animals to behave in real life, based on what they have seen on screen. The Finding Nemo Effect may be one negative instance. 

Since 2003, the already endangered ocellaris clownfish species witnessed cases of local extinction as more and more people wanted to own a fish resembling Nemo. Because they liked the movie character. Anthropological literature over the last decade is challenging the view that this leads to conservation success stories somehow. The International Union of Conservation Network, a global body putting out a list of the endangered species year after year, wrote this exactly a decade ago, “all species of marine turtles (“Squirt” and “Crush”) and more than half of all hammerhead sharks (“Anchor”), mackerel sharks (“Bruce” and “Chum”), and eagle rays (“Mr. Ray”) are threatened. Seahorses (“Sheldon”) are the most threatened group of bony fish in Finding Nemo, with two in five species at risk of extinction.”

Then there is the Bambi effect. Walt Disney’s Bambi, an all-time children’s favourite movie, features an adorable looking deer and follows an emotional journey of its mother’s death. The aesthetic portrayal of animals may drive people into thinking that only striking animals are worth saving. While one may wince at the idea of kicking a puppy, they may not react the same way to the suffering of other animals, often seen as less desirable.

To make wildlife relatable for children, movies also tend to paint a picture of the natural world that does not exist in reality. For example, in the 2000 animated movie Dinosaur by Disney, an orphan dinosaur Aladar, is raised by a family of lemurs. “The family unit is described in anthropocentric terms.” Children are likely to believe this is their real family. These movies are constructed to be a feel-good ride, making the viewer want more. However, that might add to a problem bigger than just children learning incorrectly. 

According to Gerbner, a communication theorist, cultivation theory proposes that the more frequently we consume a piece of content, the more are our chances of believing that the virtual imitates the real world. Will this content not play a role in shaping children’s understanding of reality? Leaving children more confused about the natural world? This may be a much larger concern now with the rise of OTT platforms. 

Streaming services are seeing a boom. Netflix, usually cagey to reveal data on views, put out a blog post in December 2020 stating that viewing children’s shows has increased more than 100% in India in 2020 over 2019. Parental controls on what children could see led ironically to kid content showing up again and again for the adults. Who simply got hooked. This category included anime.

Movies like Extinct are becoming increasingly popular too. Stuck indoors in the pandemic, many children continue to understand the world out there through what they watch. This 2013 journal article in Biodiversity and Conservation is part of a long chain of warnings about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. Making a case for keeping it real.

Real, not reel.

Featured Image credit: Creative Commons

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

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