One of my favorite aspects of filmmaking is the personification of animals. Since anyone can play voice acting over animation stills or live-action footage, it gives us the ability to relate to characters who are from different species. This opens up oodles of possibilities for symbolism for our stories. In many circumstances, the animal characters we all know and love are often more complex than human characters.
This is the start of a new series where I discuss individual animals that have had great success with communicating symbolism in storytelling. The first animal I’ll be discussing is the octopus.
The octopus is one of the smartest creatures in the ocean. Its problem-solving intelligence makes it a prime candidate for thriving in the open ocean. Its high intelligence allows it to use its special abilities in conjunction with a cunning wit to survive in hostile environments.
These traits are highly effective for communicating symbolism with characters who fail to understand their true potential. Octopuses can also be great supporting characters, as their unique biology allows them to pursue alternative solutions to problems that would be otherwise intangible to the rest of the cast.
Furthermore, octopuses can also provide sources of symbolism for themes of self-discovery, as these are animals with exclusive abilities that can’t be replicated anywhere else. This can symbolize the importance of personality diversity. The world around us needs all sorts of people with unique abilities and skillsets to function properly. It would be rude and naïve to shut these people out of your life because there are some problems that you can’t solve on our own.
These examples can prove to be highly valuable for writing a character arc for an octopus, as their high intelligence and unique abilities allow them to live a life much different than other animals.
An octopus’ special abilities, short lifespan, and high intelligence can be optimized for two roles. As supporting characters they can use their abilities to provide alternate solutions to problems faced by the main cast. As a mentor, their short lifespan can be symbolic of their wisdom, since their special abilities allow them to experience many incredible things in such a short time. The octopus’ biology, intelligence, and lifespan are all components that give the writer tools to teach their audience how to live up to their potential and overcome feelings of self-doubt.
One character flaw that contrasts the magnetic self-sufficiency of the octopus is a lack of confidence and self-love. In many circumstances, characters become enlightened with these traits after going on a journey to retrieve an item, rescue another character, or reach a destination. When they complete their objectives, they are rewarded with life-changing knowledge based on the experiences they had along the way. These objectives are just devices for the writer to find a way to give their characters a goal so all of their decisions leading up to the climax make sense.
However, octopuses never have to “unlock” these abilities, thanks to their unique biology and problem-solving intelligence. For example, Hank, in Finding Dory, suffered something incredibly traumatic while exploring the ocean. When he experienced life in captivity, he never wanted to return to the ocean after what happened to him.
When he was collected by humans and sent to a marine institute, all he wanted was to live inside an aquarium where he would feel safe. During his adventures with Dory to help her find her parents, he uses his special abilities to get them out of precarious situations. He uses camouflage and shapeshifting to mimic a potted plant, he uses his ink cloud ability to scare off children. He uses his suction cups to traverse the institute like a monkey traversing a jungle.
These abilities complement Dory’s personality and character arc. Part of Dory’s philosophy is a risk-taker lifestyle that encourages spontaneous decision-making to live a fulfilling life, rather than settling for a sedentary, worry-free lifestyle. From Dory’s perspective, she doesn’t want to settle for a lifestyle that lacks adventure and opportunities. Life inside an aquarium offers safety and security, but life inside the ocean allows its inhabitants to live very unique and exciting lives. If you don’t have problems to solve, you’re never going to learn anything. For us to learn, we have to embrace vulnerability and view conflicts as learning experiences. If you stick yourself to an environment that has no conflict, you’re never going to grow.
Dory meets several characters who have unique abilities to help her traverse the institute and complete her objectives. Bailey is a beluga whale who uses echolocation to help Dory find where she needs to go. Destiny is a whale shark who uses her powerful voice as a guide, using it to talk through the pipe systems, effectively mitigating Dory’s short-term memory loss. Dory isn’t afraid to embrace her shortcomings because she knows there are some things she can’t accomplish by herself.
By the end of the film, Hank uses his uniqueness to help the main cast return to the ocean and escape the marine institute. The marine institute was symbolic of society’s favoritism over a care-free lifestyle, much like the color green in The Shape of Water.
In the film’s final scene, Hank has volunteered as a substitute teacher, signifying his new values of self-respect. As a substitute teacher, he can expose his wisdom to his students so they carry on his legacy, and make the world a better place.
Now that Pixar has completed Hank’s character arc, they can follow up with a third film that centers around Hank as he comes to terms with his short lifespan. Using his wisdom to help Nemo find out where he belongs, he can teach him how to move on from the security of his father and live on his own.
Considering that Hank is an adult, this is a prime opportunity to expose children to themes of death and acceptance, since octopuses only have a lifespan of a few years. As Nemo embraces Hank’s death, he’ll use Hank’s teachings to prepare himself for adulthood. When Nemo grows up, he’ll be able to embrace his new independence and build a new family as a father and husband.
Throughout this article, we’ve talked about the octopus’ contribution to the world of storytelling. Since animals are amazing resources to make amazing characters, by using the tools they have to offer we can all learn how to make amazing films that all of us can love, and as a result, become more involved with our planet’s wildlife. Remember, you don’t have to believe what everyone else has to say about a film, all you need to know is that all that matters is what the film means to you. Only you are responsible for the decisions you make, and storytelling can be a great platform to help us learn how to make better decisions.