How Change Happens (Sometimes)

Back in August, I wrote in The Atlantic that we might be reaching a significant moment in the animal rights movement: the end of the use of animals in entertainment. From a new federal regulation regarding chimpanzees to the success of Blackfish, this summer’s hit documentary on the abuse suffered by animals at SeaWorld, there have been many recent signs that, while most people are still content to eat animals and use them for medical research, they are growing increasingly uncomfortable using them for entertainment. The turning point may have been 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which used motion-capture technology to depict incredibly life-like chimpanzees for the first time. But those chimps were special. They were unique characters and were meant to be almost human. What about a more traditional depiction of animals onscreen, as pets and wildlife? We’ll always need real animals for that, right?

Not so much. According to a recent McClatchy article, celebrated director Darren Aronofsky opted not to use real, live animals for his upcoming biblical epic, Noah, which, you guessed it, features two of almost every type of animal. According to the article, Aronofsky said:

“I think we’ve learned from people who have done it before that that’s a really bad move. Politically it’s not a great thing to work with live animals and that’s becoming more apparent to people as time goes by, but also, technically, it would have been extremely difficult. And we’ve learned from lots of other films how hard it is to bring different kinds of animals together.”

This strikes me as a big deal.  Although some animal rights activists would surely prefer Aronofsky make this choice based on ethics alone, I’d argue that it’s better he made it for political reasons because it signifies a larger cultural shift. Major shifts in society often come at the nexus of commerce and technology, which is precisely what has happened here. After the controversies over the death of horses on the set of HBO’s Luck and many different kinds of animals in The Hobbit, filmmakers now understand that live animals are not worth the potential bad press, but it is only in the last few years that technology has produced a truly valid alternative.

Russell Crowe as "Noah"

Russell Crowe as “Noah”

For evidence, please look to the last Noah’s Ark movie (sort of), Evan Almighty. Released in 2007, the film, which handed Noah’s plight off to an egotistical but well-meaning Congressman, used hundreds of live, exotic animals, which PETA called “cruel, costly, and unnecessary” in a press release. The film was an unqualified bomb, grossing only $100 million worldwide on a $175 million budget. It’s unlikely that PETA’s protest had much to do with its commercial failures, but studios are growing increasingly skittish about bad press these days, especially when it comes to high-profile projects like Noah. It’s fair to assume that fear of offending the increasingly vocal animal rights lobby may have played a role in this decision.  If so, this is a great example of how change is made: through technological advances, media attention, and free individuals voting with their dollars. It’s not a perfect system, but (sometimes) it works.

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