The Best Movie Animal Performances of 2014

Best Animal Performances of 2014

I was watching Gone Girl for the fourth time and admiring how David Fincher (and his cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth) majestically shot Ben Affleck‘s character Nick Dunne’s cat and I began to wonder about the cat’s true role in the story. The cat is featured too prominently to be just a background prop. What did the cat mean?

As I thought about this I began to realize that there had been a lot of big screen kitties this year. The New York Times notes in their review that “cats are the new dogs,” and judging from the list of animals in this article, they might be right. But as I started to think about it more, it wasn’t just cats but dogs and some actually amazing performances by other animals in this past year of film. So the list of best animal performances of 2014 grew and grew. After the jump you will find my examination of why 2014 was the year of animal movie performances and what it all means.

Best Animal Performances of 2014

This list is not ordered or ranked. We attempt to break down how the animals played a role in their respective film, using excerpts from reviews and editorials to highlight theories and interpretations, sometimes ridiculous.

Spoiler warning: Possible spoilers may be discussed for any of these films, so if you haven’t seen the movie and are spoilerphobic, skip the text of that entry.

Buttercup the cat from Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Buttercup the cat from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

ZZ680561BAIn Mockingjay, Katniss returns to District 12 to see the destruction. While in her old home district, she also drops the remains of her old house to pick up a few things — and that is where she finds Buttercup, her sister Primrose Everdeen’s cat. She remarks that of course the cat survived and not Prim’s goat because the goat actually served a purpose in the household. But the cat nearly kills them both when Prim goes back to get the cat when the capitol is bombing the underground headquarters. They all survive and despite rules against the practice, Katniss makes a deal to keep the cat in the bunker.

But Buttercup’s true purpose in the film is to become a metaphor. Hogwartsprofessor.com explains the real significance of Buttercup in this film:

“Most obviously, Katniss’s name suggests a connection to cats. Katniss is a hunter. At the beginning of Mockingjay, Buttercup makes an appearance and is well fed. Katniss assumes that Buttercup has survived by hunting field mice. In District 13 Katniss states that Buttercup will be expected to hunt to feed himself if he misses curfew. In the shelter in District 13, Buttercup becomes a celebrity. Katniss is clearly portrayed as a celebrity. Their methods of obtaining celebrity are even similar. Buttercup wins the hearts of the people of District 13 by playing a game of chasing light from a flashlight. There is no way for him to really win the game and the light is always out of reach. Katniss gains celebrity status by participating in a game that is hopeless. She finds out in Mockingjay that even the victors who have won the game haven’t really won. The Capitol continues using and abusing the victors even after they exit the games. Every victor has personality issues that began with participation in the Hunger Games. Most telling, Katniss even states “I am Buttercup” in chapter 11 of Mockingbird at the start of an extended simile relating Buttercup’s relationship with the light and Katniss’s relationship with Peeta.”

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Buttercup didn’t have a huge part in the overall plot of Mockingjay but her appearance has been the topic of much fan debate. The cat was originally black-and-white when she appeared in the first Hunger Games movie, but series author Suzanne Collins asked to have it changed to an orange cat as she had described in the books. Director Francis Lawrence followed through on this request, angering some fans. But Hollywood casting ginger cats seems to be a new Hollywood trend.

The USA Today blog Entertain This believes the cat is the biggest survivor story of the Hunger Games films:

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 is filled with great warriors and survivors. But no survivor story is more impressive than Buttercup the cat. It’s a cat against the Capitol and the cat still lives. Buttercup has not only survived the first two death-filled Hunger Games installments, but even President Snow’s brutality on the home district in Part 1. As Willow Shields, who plays the doting cat owner Primrose Everdeen, says: “Somehow Buttercup has lived through all these crazy experiences.”

The cat is so popular in the Hunger Games fan community that fans have created a character poster for her, seen above right.

Gone Girl cat

Nick Dunn’s Cat Bleeker From Gone Girl

Gone Girl catThere is perhaps no cat more majestically photographed than that the animal owned by Ben Affleck’s character Nick Dunn from David Fincher’s Gone Girl. The house cat, named Bleeker in the book, has a significant amount of screen time, watching silently as the couple’s marriage collapses. Later, he peers outside watching the media circus unfold. John Powers writes in Vogue that the cat is “an emotional marker” and HelloGiggles suggests that his placement in scenes is strategic, swaying sympathy towards either Nick or Amy.

“When Nick is clutching the cat in the guest room the night of Amy’s return, he isn’t just protecting himself from Amy—he’s protecting the cat. When he wakes the next morning and goes down to the kitchen, however, the cat is sitting on the counter with Amy—almost exactly positioned as the pawn to her queen. He’s there until the very end, and repeatedly referenced throughout the film, regardless of screen time. From “That’s the cat’s room” to “Where is the cat food?” both director David Fincher and the book’s author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, make sure the cat never fades out of the script. By successfully illustrating a relationship fraught with instability and mutual cruelty, Fincher allows for the character of the cat to exist independently of the action, but still provides a purpose for the lil’ guy in the hearts of the audience. If you haven’t seen the film yet, keep an eye out for this amazing creature. He knows all.”

The Huffington Post even asked author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn who revealed the following:

“There’s a screenplay book called ‘Save the Cat.’ It’s all about making your character likable,” Flynn said. “In the first 10 minutes he should do something that makes you like him. I enjoyed that in the first 10 minutes he literally saves the cat.” Affleck responded “And yet you still don’t like him,” to which Flynn quipped: “I liked him, I love that he’s so devoted to his cat.”

The cat is actually the reason Nick comes home to find his living room trashed — a neighbor called him to let him know his cat had escaped and was wandering around the front yard. Nick’s cat even has his own room in Amy and Nick’s rather large suburban house.

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It is clear the cat doesn’t care much for Amy, but we do see that Amy wins over the cat in the end by the end of the story (David Fincher notes this on the film’s audio commentary) but Gillian doesn’t buy that theory — “I feel like Amy is playing Cool Girl again at that point by letting him up on the counter.”

Ben Affleck has joked that the real cat is “a half-dead cat” and David Fincher elaborated on that comment in the film’s audio commentary.

“I love this cat. This cat’s name is Cheeto, because he looks like a Cheeto. Cheeto was not very healthy. I think Cheeto was a little dehydrated. His fur was a little greasy and kind of matted. He didn’t seem to hear very much. I don’t know that he saw very much, but the beauty of Cheeto was wherever you placed Cheeto, that’s where he was going to stay for that day. So continuity with Cheeto was never an issue. If you put Cheeto on the stairs, you can shoot for nine hours and at the end of the day, go, Cheeto’s at the bottom of the stairs and you can pick him up. He was fantastic.”

One blog post I found went on an angry rant about how David Fincher snubbed the cat by not including it in the credits:

I think this is truly inexcusable. That cat could act, yet Director David Fincher chose to snub it in the credits. What cat would just sit on a kitchen counter while Mr. Fincher requested the actors do a scene 20 times, plus or minus five? I don’t know if this happened for a fact with the cat, but I do know that no scene I appeared in was performed less than 15 times and most were well north of that. Why should a scene with a cat be any different? I suppose I could be unjustly blaming Fincher for not giving the cat credit. Maybe there was no actual cat used in the movie. Perhaps, the cat acted so perfectly, because it was CGI, a total electronic creation of bits and bytes, the only differences from a bloodthirsty T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” is that e-Bleeker is a lot smaller, cuter and much better behaved. Far fetched? Possibly, but there are six different special effects companies and their couple hundred employees listed in the credits as working on “Gone Girl”. They had to do something. A CGI cat is the only explanation I can fathom as to why no cat or cat wrangler is listed in the credits. Practically everything and everyone else is listed.

Felix the cat in St Vincent

Felix in St. Vincent

Felix in St VincentIn St. Vincent, Bill Murray plays an old alcoholic veteran who lives alone with his cat in a run-down Brooklyn house. Felix doesn’t have a huge role in the plot of St Vincent. The feline is both a reflection of the main titular character as well as a way to humanize him. But Felix is on this list because he somehow steals the spotlight from Bill Murray every chance he can get. Vulture called Felix the “cutest cat of the 2014 awards season”:

All the promotion for St. Vincent has centered around Bill Murray. It makes sense: He’s the star of the movie; and he’s Bill Murray, the internet’s favorite uncle. However, those who’ve seen St. Vincent know Murray isn’t the breakout. And, no, it’s not the little kid. It’s the cat. Murray’s character Vincent has a cat named Felix, and it’s the best cat, full stop. He’s just a wonderful, fluffy, lush Persian with a face so grumpy, it makes Bill Murray at the beginning of Groundhog Day look like Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day.

The production notes for the film reveal that Murray committed to Felix despite being allergic:

Unfortunately Murray is allergic to cats, but in another show of his commitment to the film, he tolerated the feline cast-mate. “Not a cat guy particularly, but that cat happened to get washed, shampooed and blown dry so he had no dander,” jokes Murray. “I don’t think he even had hair oil because he was so clean. He’s a pro cat.”

You can see some behind the scenes photos of Murray holding the cat at arms length on shadeddreampersians.

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