From the September/October 1994 issue

EVEN IF WE ARE WISE AS OWLS AND SLY AS FOXES, LESS sophisticated animals can teach us much about our human nature. But when we are feeling crazy as loons, slow as sloths and stubborn as mules, our human frailties may so embarrass us that we prefer to soften our morality fables by basing them on the foibles of animals. Each morning in the comic strips, Garfield and Snoopy carry on a long tradition that began with Aesop and Aristophanes. And a cartoon possum named Pogo is still the source of the most humbling wisdom of our time, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Walt Disney, genius of sentimental anthropomorphizing, capitalized on our childlike tendency to identify our own vulnerability with that of cuddly little animals. Both the squeakily sweet Mickey Mouse and the irascible Donald Duck are us. Disney animators, always cognizant of both timeless archetypal myths and current sociological trends, created fairy tale classics that spoke to the most basic fragilities of children. The most vivid emotional experiences of my childhood were from Disney movies the homicidal stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the death of the mother in Bambi (1942). Those two films surely contributed to the ensuing decades of mother bashing in which we expected little or nothing from fathers and found surprise! that our more or less single mothers were always either too present or too absent in our lives. We couldn’t live with them, we couldn’t live without them, and we certainly couldn’t escape them.

Unfortunately, sometime after Peter Pan in 1953, the Disney people started settling for simply babysitting kids. With the last four animated features, however, the inspiration and ambition have returned and the films have appealed to older and older audiences. The Little Mermaid (1989) had wonderful calypso songs and cleverly comic voices, such as Pat Carroll as a grabby, villainous octopus and Buddy Hackett as a goofy seagull. Beauty and the Beast (1991), drawn to resemble jewel-like stained glass windows and intricate 19th century German woodcuts, is the most beautiful cartoon feature ever. Aladdin (1992) showcased Robin Williams’s manic stand-up comedy routine as a genie who did great impersonations, including an all-too-real William F. Buckley.

All three of these animated classic films are fairy tales tailored into love stories for adolescent girls. All three heroines are determinedly independent, with no mothers and either foolish or uncomprehending fathers, and in all three stories the heroes and heroines are required by law or magic spells to fall in love before their next birthday. Luckily, none of these young lovers has anything more important to do.

Disney’s latest offering, The Lion King, is another film of great physical beauty, set on the sweeping Serengeti Plains of East Africa. Its songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice, may not be as catchy as those from other recent Disney films, but they are pleasant and wonderfully staged and The Lion Kings vocal performances are the wittiest yet. The story is ambitious, not from a classic fairy tale at all, but inspired by serious coming-of-age dramas of masculine responsibility: Hamlet, Iron John and Boyz N’ the Hood.

The Lion King tells the tale of Simba, a young lion expecting to inherit his noble father Mufasa’s position as King of the Pride Lands, but Mufasa (God-voiced, utterly commanding James Earl Jones) is killed in a wildebeest stampede. Simba runs away, thinking he is responsible for his father’s death. Lost without a father, he bums around with a warthog (Ernie Sabella as a blue collar dunce) and a meerkat (Nathan Lane as wisecracking Jewish stand-up comic). Meanwhile Simba’s uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons, a sadistic aristocrat with overtones of Glaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune), takes over the kingdom, and turns it over to a pack of scavenging hyenas (Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Cummings as a New York street gang). With the effete Scar unable to inspire the lionesses to hunt, the kingdom languishes.

Simba grows up, re-encounters Nala, the girlfriend of his youth, who is far more sensible and a better wrestler to boot. She knows the Pride Lands cannot thrive without a strong king. With help from his hornbilled old tutor (Rowan Atkinson, the befuddled priest who spoke to “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat” in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and a baboon therapist (Robert Guillaume) who bops Simba over the head with his walking stick, Nala talks Simba into going home, ousting Scar and restoring the Pride Lands to their former glory.

Stories for children, especially from Disney, have not looked kindly upon creatures so high on the food chain. Simba is not a soft and helpless little creature, but a regal king, not a gentle and tasty morsel, but a carnivorous lion. Vulnerable children tend to identify with the mouse not the cat, with Bambi not the hunters. Here Mufasa explains to Simba that it is okay for lions to eat vegetarians because, when carnivores die, their flesh nourishes the grass, which, in turn, feeds the antelopes. Still, in order to maintain the sympathy of the squeamish, the Disney people have the warthog and the meerkat convert Simba into an insectivore, eating bright beetles that no one cares about personally.

Even if the film fudges on some of the issues, The Lion King shamelessly glorifies masculinity and expresses great doubts about family life without the father. It is especially apt that the film is set in Africa, and has a largely black cast, underscoring the widespread collapse of fatherless African-American families. The film tells men and boys to stop wasting their lives on the streets with warthogs and weasels, and go back home where they can use their masculinity to do something good but what? Men may be necessary, but their function is not so clear. The film flirts with the implication that men don’t have to actually do anything, except be there. The lion king’s presence on the rock overlooking the plain is enough to set the world right.

WHATEVER THE BEHAVIOR OF cartoon lions, their real-life counterparts are not ideal role models for fatherless boys. Male lions (like men in many families) are lazy cats who let the fiercer lionesses do the hunting. Actually, the loyal, steadfast, gender egalitarian and monogamous wolf offers a better example. But the wolf has taken on a far different metaphoric meaning, symbolizing rampant, out-of-control male sexuality.

Accordingly, the wolf is a favorite animal cracker for grown-up little boys, and is so close to human in our imaginations that tales of human wolfishness are acted out by human actors, not cartoons. The wolf lies just beneath our skin.

The Wolf Man first appeared on screen in 1941, with Lon Chancy, Jr. as the proper young English lord who gets bitten by a werewolf. Chancy soon finds thick hair growing up his legs to cover his whole body and face. A portentous old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) intones the warning: “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Sure enough, the hairy young man begins to stalk the park shrouded in thick fog, biting and killing whoever gets in his way. Chancy is horrified by what is happening to him, as is his father, played by the suave Claude Rains. Rains assures his son that there is both good and evil in every man, but Chaney’s lupine activities are beyond the pale, so he beats the boy to death with a silver walking stick to release him from his appalling lapses in propriety.

Created directly for the screen, the Wolf Man was always a second rate monster, never achieving the metaphoric depth of his more serious literary compatriots, like the toothy Transylvanian count who lived on the blood of others or the audacious mad scientist who, in his hubris, created life from spare parts.

As a boy devoted to horror flicks, I never understood the symbolic significance of the Wolf Man. It was only at puberty, as the hair sprouted from my ankles and climbed toward my face (stopping before it reached the top of my head), that I began to understand the metaphor of the civilized man whose testosterone poisoning drives him literally wild at night. I finally got the point: If a man lets his basic nature get the better of him, he risks making an animal of himself.

In 1941, The Wolf Man assumed that no man would want to live if he could not keep his sexuality and aggressiveness under mannerly control. But times have changed, and the metaphor of the Wolf Man has metamorphosed too. He has been revived and adapted for our time by Mike Nichols, our urbane master of ironic social commentary {The Graduate) and trenchant observer of contemporary sexual politics {Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl). Nichols aptly casts Jack Nicholson as the man who would be wolf. The Encyclopedia of Film describes the uniquely beloved Nicholson this way. “Beneath the exterior of a normal nerd existed the heart and soul of a maniac.” Nicholson has always been the Wolf Man.

In Wolf, Nicholson is a New Yorker New Yorker, the soft, tired, tweedy editorial director of a small publishing house, a man with entirely too much taste, integrity and individuality. His billionaire boss (imperious Christopher Plummer) chooses the occasion of a dinner party at his baronial estate to fire Nicholson for having too many non-commercial virtues. Soon after, Nicholson finds out his wife is screwing around with his ruthlessly unctuous, baby-faced protege and successor-to-be James (Baby Boom, Watt Street) Spader. The over-civilized Nicholson is to be replaced, at home as well as work, by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Nicholson has recently tried to help a stricken wolf on the road, only to have the yellow-eyed beast wink and bite him. As the crises in his life mount, Nicholson begins his metamorphosis: his senses are suddenly heightened, his appetites are inflamed and hair sprouts around his body. He prowls around Plummer’s estate and snifls out Plummer’s daughter, Michelle (“Cat Woman”) Pfeiffer, a spoiled, angry post-adolescent at war with her father. She likes dangerous men she thinks would be an embarrassment to him. She is the sort of hostile/dependent daughter-of-the-rich that Lauren Bacall played opposite Humphrey Bogart. Pfeiffer is turned on by the increasingly wolfish Nicholson, telling him, “I never dreamed a man like you could look at me the way you do.”

By day, the newly lupine Nicholson becomes a virile, aggressive, take-charge, turned-on man, literally pissing on Spader’s shoes to “mark off my territory,” psychologically wrestling both his wife and his boss, and bringing both of them, begging for more, under his control By night, his wolfishness is heightened. Nicholson, with long teeth and bushy sideburns, does silly things in the park, scaring animals in the zoo, biting fingers off would-be muggers, leaping around on rocks and actually howling at the mooa He looks up an old gypsy who could protect him from his curse, but the dying old man would understandably rather have Nicholson bite him and grant him the regenerating benefits of this post-pubertal hormonal surge. The gypsy offers an antidotal amulet, but Nicholson prefers the curse to its cure. Werewolfism, or any other form of heightened masculinity, comes at a cost, and the film clearly believes the ride is worth the price.

Unfortunately, the film eventually turns from lupine to loopy. While Nicholson is lascivious enough and devilish enough, he has gotten too old for a lot of the athletic silliness. The rather heavily pancaked Pfeiffer looks too gorgeous (and too young) to be quite real, but she isn’t called upon to do very much more than that. I feared that at any moment Pfeiffer’s pale blue eyes would turn yellow and she would grow fangs and sideburns and leap around on the rocks in Central Park scaring the tourists, but this is a film about men and masculinity, and in such fantasies the woman must stand back in awe. Michelle Pfeiffer with sideburns could never be more dangerous than she was making whoopee on a white piano with Jeff Bridges or letting Daniel Day Lewis gently kiss her slipper.

Spader steals the show as he turns from a terrifyingly charming and oh-so-gentle manipulator into a wildly hyperactive young wolf, who rolls his bulging eyeballs and drools as he competes for the fair Pfeiffer. In his best moment, he bends down to smell her skirt and looks as if he is about to faint. The despicable Spader seems quite real we know that guy, both before and after his bite, but he is far scarier as a yuppie on the make than as a wolf on the prowl.

This beautiful, cautious and entirely too tasteful movie makes old-fashioned, unleashed, masculine passion seem both desirable and dangerous. “Inside every man is both good and evil,” as Claude Rains told us a half-century ago. We used to be ashamed of the evil that lurked in our hearts and other vital organs, but Wolf makes us drool for a little taste of animal evil, for a manhood that is alert, hungry, passionate, alive, and, above all, unashamed. Mike Nichols’s social commentary is, as usual, subversive, but, unfortunately, he can’t find an ending for his decidedly non-horrific horror movie. The old ending seems hopelessly outdated. While unleashed masculinity may have become a source of embarrassment, relatively few men would find it merciful to be dispatched from it by a silver bullet or walking cane. Ultimately, Wolf can’t find a middle ground for men, something between howling at the moon and sulking through life apologizing for our Y chromosome.

As Mark Twain told us, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” For men who blush because they are either too wolfish and leonine, or not wild and regal enough, what sort of furry critter would they choose to be? What’s next? Rats? Goats? Skunks? Pigs? Or might they just try to be more humbly human, in all their human frailty?


Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.