After rewatching Oliver & Company and The Fox and the Hound, I got to thinking how strange it would be if my cats were just as intelligent as the animals in Disney or Pixar. For many of us, talking animals were a big part of our childhood, and they have continued to be part of us well into adulthood. From live-action films like Homeward Bound to completely animated movies such as Bolt, these stories are a great way to teach audience members, particularly children, valuable life lessons. The Fox and the Hound teaches us about empathy and societal pressures, The Lion King tells us about growing up and taking responsibility even if we don’t want to, and Zootopia teaches us about inclusion and racism.
Even if all these movies are by no means perfect, the messages they want to teach us are pretty clear. However, very rarely do talking animal movies delve into topics like abuse and death. And let’s face it, the world is a really awful place for animals, and from an animal’s perspective, it must be rather horrifying to live here. Happy talking animal movies have their place, but as The Fox and the Hound lets us know, so do unhappy ones. And that brings me to Fluke, a live-action 1995 drama film.
Fluke is a flawed movie, but the story it tries to tell is certainly interesting and it captured my imagination as a child. It’s also different from other talking animal movies in how it presents the relationship between animals and people. In most of these movies, the animals, for whatever magical reason, can talk. They are personified and just as capable of thought and reason as any human being. But while their ability to communicate works across different animal species, the same does not apply to humans. I do sometimes question that people never seem to notice how smart pets are in the world of fiction, but the animals’ inability to communicate with humans is almost always an accepted part of reality. This inability is one of the driving forces in Fluke’s plot.
Our main character is a man called Thomas. After he dies in a car crash, he finds himself reincarnated as a puppy named Fluke. As a dog, he’s able to talk to other animals—all dogs used to be people, and then when they die again, they become a different animal—but he cannot speak to humans. Furthermore, he can’t fully remember his human life. He knows that both he and his dog friend Rumbo were both human at one point in time, but the memories themselves are fleeting and the details about his former life escape him. Nevertheless, he still remembers enough to know that he had a wife and child, and as the movie progresses, he seeks them out and manages to be adopted as their new pet.
Fluke then spends a good portion of the movie trying to tell them who he really is through his actions. He hides his son’s toys the same way he used to as Thomas, and even breaks into his closet so he can wear his old hats. It’s not until the end of the film that he manages to let them know the truth. Having found closure and a way to say goodbye, Fluke leaves so his family can move on without him, and the film ends with them getting another puppy.
I wouldn’t call Fluke the saddest movie in the world by any means, but until the ending, it is in no way a happy film. And even then, I’d say the ending is still sad. Fluke leaves because he cannot reconcile living with his family while watching his wife fall in love with someone else. He died, got his closure, and now it’s time to let everyone move on. His main journey is one of discovery—as a dog, he can see the world from a completely different perspective, and he learns that his human self wasn’t a great person. Sure, Thomas loved his wife and son, but he was a distant workaholic with anger issues. The car crash that ended his life was entirely his own fault, even though for the majority of the movie he blames Jeff, a former business associate and now his wife’s new boyfriend, for what happened.
The inability to communicate is a central part of the movie and a great source of pain for Fluke, but his new perspective on life is what makes this film stand out to me. Fluke horrified me as a child, because this movie doesn’t shy away from abusive and dark places. At one point, Fluke is abducted to be used for cosmetic experiments, and when Rumbo saves him, Rumbo is shot and killed. At another point, Fluke attempts to murder Jeff, and right when he’s about to succeed, he remembers the details of his accident and realizes that he has no right to keep Jeff from his family. Earlier in the movie, while Fluke is still a puppy, he’s adopted by an elderly homeless woman who dies in her sleep, most likely in part due to her homelessness. By showing our own reality through the lens of a dog, Fluke gets to see the world from an entirely different perspective he never would have previously considered, but is powerless to change anything.
Fluke’s main message is learning when to move on and growing as a person. I certainly appreciate that the film also attempts to delve into some really dark places—Rumbo’s murder, death, and torture—but it sadly doesn’t do a whole lot with these scenes. They are things that happen on Fluke’s journey of self-discovery, and while they do influence him, I can’t remember them really furthering the main message. We see these awful things, and then what? Nothing really changes, and that is bad worldbuilding. Here, we finally have a movie that starts off as if it’s going to address animal cruelty and questionable human-animal relationships, only to drop that halfway through. Fluke’s human family doesn’t start volunteering at the local animal shelter, they don’t give up eating meat or using products tested on animals, nor do they start practicing religions that teach reincarnation. I have to wonder how Fluke’s wife, who knows without a doubt that Fluke was her husband, and Jeff, who at least seemed to figure out that Fluke had human-like intelligence, feel about buying and owning another dog.
Like almost all talking animal stories, the powers that be in this universe are not really explained. Talking animals by themselves are fantastical, but the use of reincarnation also gives this movie some religious elements. I remember Fluke originally questioning why he’s a dog and why they can talk to each other, but it’s not as though Rumbo has all the answers to give him—they can talk to each other because animals are psychic or something, which humans aren’t—and instead talking animals and reincarnation become just another accepted part of their reality as fact. In this way, it’s very similar to other talking animal movies. As a whole, we in the audience are more than willing to accept these kinds of narratives without any real backstory or worldbuilding. For the most part, these kinds of stories exist to impart a lesson long before they even attempt to make sense.