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.
Of course, there have been phenomenal films where the animal characters don’t speak and prove to just as effective as characters who do speak. Some of these characters include Richard Parker from Life of Pi, the Mountain Lord from The Tiger, The Alpha from The Grey, and The Asset, from Shape of Water.
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.
For storytelling, 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.
This is why life-coaching and psychological therapy can prove to be phenomenal sources of income and fulfillment. Some people are skilled in different aspects of life than the rest of us. It would be foolish to believe that you would be more capable of helping yourself than someone who is highly educated on human behavior.
In other circumstances, some people have simply experienced things that have given them a different perspective on life. These unique perspectives have allowed them to be incredibly successful, so the least you could do is at least hear them out. 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. In this article, I’ll also discuss another character that expands upon the themes presented by the octopus.
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.
JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure
We don’t make mistakes, we only have happy accidents.Bob Ross – The Joy of Painting
Although the octopus is a wonderful resource for communicating themes of self-development, I want to emphasize that there several other ways you can approach the same ideas using other animals. Since storytelling is mainly fiction, you are in control of the world you write. The great thing about storytelling is that there are no rules. As long as people enjoy consuming the content you love to write, what you choose to include in your fictional world doesn’t matter.
I feel that one person who perfectly represents this philosophy is Horohiko Araki, who is responsible for writing the manga series: JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure. Normally, writers plan out their stories before they start writing to prevent numerous issues that come with planning the story as you write.
When you plan out your story as you write, you might run into plot holes that are inescapable because you decided to change something about a character or an aspect of the story midway through. However, since JJBA has formed a reputation for being a universe that’s full of bizarre and ridiculous plotlines, this method of writing compliments the series’ spontaneous personality.
In the third book of the series, Stardust Crusaders: Battle in Egypt, there is a character named Iggy, a dog who joins the main cast after being rescued by Joseph and Avdol.
Dogs in storytelling are normally present to represent themes of loyalty, vulnerability, and leadership. However, much like Hank failing to understand his true potential in Finding Dory, Iggy has rejected the loyalty in his genes in favor of a worry-free lifestyle. We never see Iggy contribute to the group unless he is forced to, best evidenced in his first appearance.
As a dog, Iggy could provide a much more involved addition to the group, especially with his Stand ability being able to manipulate sand. As a result of his lack of involvement in the story, there are some fans of the show that believe that his addition was unnecessary. However, I disagree.
Iggy was never enthusiastic about the group’s mission to defeat DIO until he met DIO’s pet bird, Pet Shop. In this fight between Iggy and Pet Shop, Iggy doesn’t fight at all, rather, he flees into the sewers. This fight eventually leads them to a lake, where Iggy is forced to defend himself to prevent his untimely death. In this final act of desperation, his actions are progressive rather than reactionary because he devises a plan and takes a risk to defeat Pet Shop, rather than passively allowing the world to make decisions for him. Iggy could have waited for Pet Shop to attack first, but his progressive actions allowed him to win the battle because he subverted Pet Shop’s expectations.
Iggy’s Bizzare Adventure (SPOILERS)
After Iggy defeats Pet Shop, he has a flashback that takes a glimpse into his past. We learn that he was once involved in dogfighting, and reigned supreme as a warlord over other dogs as a result of his Stand. However, once Joseph and Avdol rescued him to use him as an ally against DIO, they gave him a new life where he’s showered with love. After this flashback, he’s realized how much time he’s wasted trying to live a life that’s free of conflict and worry.
After this battle, Iggy’s too weak to escape the water by himself and starts sinking to the bottom. Just before he’s about to drown, he is saved by a young boy who returns him to shore. Some may say that this represents a weakness in Iggy’s character, but I disagree. Since Iggy has finally come to terms with his mistakes and has embraced his feelings of vulnerability in his final moments, his rescue is representative of the consequences of being involved with the people you love in your life.
That boy was not just an ordinary bystander, he was the boy that was saved by Iggy in a heroic attempt to prevent him from being eaten by Pet Shop. If Iggy had allowed this boy to be eaten, Iggy would have to accept that his decisions were responsible for the boy’s death. Furthermore, Iggy’s heroism was rewarded because the boy formed a connection with him after he saved his life. When you help people solve problems, you form connections with them, and connections are what make the world a better place to live. Love is the only thing that will separate you from the outside world, as it is a very personalized emotion that means something different to everyone.
Iggy’s rescue is representative of his rebirth into a character that’s proactive rather than reactionary. His old self drowned in the lake, but his new enlightened self emerged victoriously. The battle wasn’t necessarily with Pet Shop, but rather, with his older self, much like Chuck Noland’s choice to leave Wilson behind in Cast Away.
We see Iggy embrace the pleasures of being a dog later in the story, when he helps Polnareff in the fight against Vanilla Ice, one of DIO’s minions. Unfortunately, Iggy tragically dies during this fight.
Much like the symbolism presented in the short lifespan of an octopus, Iggy’s death and short-lived sense of enlightenment can prove to us that it doesn’t matter how much time you’ve wasted in your life. All that matters is how you spend your time in the present, once you’ve found out where you belong. In the moments before Iggy’s death, his actions were far from reactionary. He saw the value of friendship, specifically, his relationship with Polnareff. As a result of the influence of this new wisdom, he used the last of his stamina and Stand Power to rescue Polnareff, helping him defeat Vanilla Ice.
Even if you spend only a few hours in enlightenment before your death, all that matters is that you’ve found what life means to you, so all of that time you’ve “wasted”, was not spent in vain. Once you find out where you belong, you won’t have to worry about anything else.
Throughout this article, we’ve talked about the octopus’ contribution to the world of storytelling, and an example of another animal that expands upon the themes that the octopus represents. What I want you to get out of this new series is that love is a very personal emotion. I will never be able to fully explain what Richard Parker, The Baron, or Iggy have done for my growth as a person. The point I’m trying to make is that storytelling is a phenomenal resource for self-growth. 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.