By Dharma Senn
Dogs, young children, occasionally cats: they seem to be untouchable by the gritty hands of narrative death. If a film dares to kill one of the above, all bets are off. But when has film ever cared about conventionality?
The dog dies. Tears flow. Usually.
In today’s narratives, dogs are often brought up whenever a certain natural setting is involved. In her 2002 essay, “Good Dog: The Stories We Tell about Our Canine Companions and What They Mean For Humans and Other Animals”, Karla Armbuster suggests that dogs as domestic animals are seen as existing on the thin line between nature and culture. In turn, “the dog’s perceived position on the nature/culture boundary promises modern humans a connection to nature that has otherwise largely been lost” (353).
Therefore, adventure films like The Call of the Wild (2020, dir. Chris Sanders) utilize the dynamic between human, animal and the wilderness in their narrative, as survival stands on screen as a central theme. We fear for the dog because it is a protagonist, because its struggles are just as clearly articulated as its owner’s. The dog serves as a mediator between nature and culture, and helps its human survive. Naturally, the dog survives as well, or its death is emotionally affecting for the viewer.
But what if the dog in question is not a helpful protagonist? What if nature is not a threat? What if it is not a narrative of survival, but one of growing up?
Pets are usually not multi-facetted like people, at least not in film. Unless they star as the protagonist of a narrative, they do not bear multiple character traits we either identify or disagree with. Pets are not shown as overly complicated and they generally do not carry the potential to suddenly change personality and turn either evil or good. They are easy to like for the viewer because they provide security. But we do not love them. And while death is often present in coming of age narratives, a one-dimensional dog we barely know can hardly make for tearful content. So why does it die?
Moonrise Kingdom (2012, dir. Wes Anderson) follows the story of two children, Sam and Suzy, who decide to escape their parentally structured environment and search for a place that only belongs to them, restricted to the fictional island of New Penzance they live on. Moonrise Kingdom presents itself as a film with the aesthetic of a picture book, a highly stylised world that seems estranged and far away from our own reality. This clean, meticulously planned presentation ultimately leads the audience into presuming a certain safety for the main characters. Protagonists do not usually die, less of all those of a coming of age narrative, less of all those living in a world the equivalent of a child’s playhouse. If anything, their grandparents are in the real danger of dying a peaceful, but emotionally dragging death, right?
This feeling of safety is further supported by the fact that Sam and Suzy venture into the wilderness alone, with comical preparation, and despite that are doing perfectly fine among the trees. They are not in need of a mediation between them and the wild. The only danger seems to come from a group of young scouts who have taken it upon themselves to find Sam and Suzy and are ready to use force when necessary to bring them back. But they are children. They would not hurt anyone, truly. Would they?
The dog the scouts have brought with them finds itself in the middle of a collision between the two oppositional groups.
It ends up with an arrow in its throat and dies.
At this point in the film, the viewer barely has a connection with the animal, nor does Sam or Suzy. So why did the dog have to die?
The dog’s death in Moonrise Kingdom ultimately reinforces the environment Suzy and Sam find themselves in. The wilderness has never hurt them. It is a safe place. The threat comes from the outside: Violence was brought into the forest when the scouts arrived and accidentally shot their own dog. The sanctity of the film’s rules, the presumed safety it built with its presentation and careless narrative, has been invaded and broken. Stakes are being raised. Are we really sure nothing will happen to the kids?
The dog died, after all.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi) carries Ricky Baker in its centerstage, a juvenile delinquent who is accustomed to the big city life and gets handed to a new pair of foster parents through child services. They live in the middle of the New Zealand bush. Naturally, it takes Ricky a while to grow fond of his new home. This film, unlike Moonrise Kingdom, establishes its rules differently. The film never gives us the idea of a safe, untouchable narrative. Death is not an outside entity to this world, as shown with the death of Ricky’s new foster mother Bella in the first 20 minutes. Here, too, Ricky escapes into the wilderness with nothing but his dog he has begun to strike up a friendship with. Like in the case of Sam and Suzy – although Ricky’s lousy preparation for the bush gives him minor trouble to start with – the wild becomes a second home for runaway Ricky and his foster father Hector for the months they travel through it. Not survival poses a danger, but outside forces like child services, which invade that safety in pursuit to bring Ricky under new care or possibly juvenile prison, while also aiming to convict Hector – due to a misunderstanding – of sexual misconduct. Similarities between the two films present themselves.
Different than in Moonrise Kingdom however, the dog does not die because of a clash of oppositional forces, outside versus inside. Instead, during their daring escape, Hector’s hunting dog runs after a wild boar and a fight ensues. The dog is mortally wounded.
Hector puts it down with his rifle.
Given that we already know that death is possible within the boundaries of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, why did the dog have to die this time?
Because the rules of the filmic world are broken yet again. Instead of enforcing the safety of the wilderness, the dog’s death reminds us that it is not safe at all.
While the death of the dog in Moonrise Kingdom introduces the concept of death as a whole to the narrative and breaks through its meticulously planned and clean presentation, Hunt for the Wilderpeople introduces the idea that no place is truly safe for our protagonists, with the same result. It is not just about making a first experience with death or come to terms with loss for the first time. Ultimately, a layer of safety is removed. Presumed rules are not a given. Death is introduced, but more importantly, its jumbled, clumsy, uncontrollable, and unplannable nature with it.
And the dog got the short end of the stick.
Growing up puts us into a spot where uncomfortableness and insecurity suddenly become the norm. As a kid, you do not question yourself. You do not feel the pressure of organized living, of productivity, you do not look into the mirror and wonder if you fit, and stress out over other people liking you or not. You know the rules of childhood. Parents are authorities, you go to school, you go home, you play, you sleep, rinse and repeat. Nothing else besides having a good time matters. You will not suddenly get presented with bills or need to give your signature for random petitions. It is a world of safety.
But what if the rails that kept you from tumbling are removed? What if the filmic boundaries you thought you lived in suddenly turn out to go beyond the edge you thought they ended at?
The thing about training wheels is, that they do not last forever. One day, they will be taken away.
Moonrise Kingdom and Hunt for the Wilderpeople suggest that safety can be found in the forest of your childhood. Among thick trunks and dense greens, adventures are closer than ever, and connections grow strong like the roots that support our bare feet. Boundaries exist. But it is a dream-like state, the running through the trees. One day, you will have to tumble to be able to catch yourself.
And suddenly, the dog dies.
Armbuster, Karla. “Good Dog: The Stories We Tell about Our Canine Companions and What They Mean for Humans and Other Animals.” Papers on Language and Literature, 38, 4, 2002, pp. 351-376.
Moonrise Kingdom. Directed by Wes Anderson, performances by Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton. Ascot Elite Entertainment Group, 2012.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Directed by Taika Waititi, performances by Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne and Oscar Kightley. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2016.