Tonight marks the premiere of Super Buddies, the latest and greatest chapter of Disney Channel’s series featuring the descendants of Air Bud, that canine wonder that was introduced to the world in 1997, defying physics, biology, and professional human athletes to dunk basketballs and score touchdowns. This is the seventh installment of the Buddies spin-off series — you’ve seen Spooky Buddies and Santa Buddies, right?! — and it will no doubt be the greatest movie about superhero dogs since at least 2007’s Underdog.
If you consider Super Buddies a sort of X-Dog team, the next step in the evolution of animal heroes — and I do — it is important to look back on the cinematic anthropomorphism that came before them.
The first real animal star dates all the way back to the early days of the medium. Rin Tin Tin, a German Shepard rescued during World War I, was so popular during the silent film era that he was reportedly voted Best Actor at the 1929 Oscars — only for the Academy to intervene with horrible dogscrimination and rule that only humans could win the award.
Incredibly, Rin Tin Tin — whose real name was Rinty, as coined by Lee Duncan, the American soldier who rescued him — rose to fame using just his physical prowess and facial expressions. He never spoke in movies, even when talkies took over Hollywood.
In the 1925 film below, for example, Rin Tin Tin is described as a “half-breed wolf — combining the savage strength of the wild, with the intelligence of his dog ancestry.” His name in the movie is Lobo — Spanish for wolf — and he has a love interest, Nanette. Romantic.
Decades after Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, the franchise continued with the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, which, for a short time, starred Hey You, a direct descendent of the original RTT. Sadly, Hey You was soon replaced, and the dog never spoke past barking — much like Lassie, whose distraught howls were very clear to the townspeople, if not the TV audience at home.
Even though fake Rin Tin Tin didn’t talk, and Lassie was unintelligible to everyone who wasn’t in running distance of Timmy and that treacherous well, there were talking animals on TV at the time.
Mostly, they lived in barns.
Francis the Talking Mule, who starred in seven comedy films in the 1950s, was also a war vet — kind of like the original War Horse — and only spoke to his master. Sound familiar? Perhaps something like Mister Ed? He was actually the precursor for the iconic character in that the first six Francis movies were directed by a guy named Arthur Lublin, who went on to create the series about the most legendary talking horse in Hollywood history.
Mister Ed — who moved his mouth thanks to a wire tied to his gums, not peanut butter, as had long been rumored — dominated the 1960s. And the horse who starred in the show, which ran from 1961 to 1966, was amazingly named Bamboo Harvester.
The year after Mister Ed ended, 20th Century Fox introduced the film adaptation of Doctor Dolittle, which was about a doctor who spoke to animals (duh) and featured a speaking parrot named Polynesia, voiced by Ginny Tyler. The bird taught the Doctor how to speak animal and the film was an expensive disaster, bringing in $9 million, which is just over half of Doctor Dolittle’s $17 million budget. But that didn’t stop someone from making a sequel 30 years down the road (but more on that later).
The 1960s and ’70s had little to offer when it came to talking animal movies — animated films, sure, but we’re after the real McCoy here, so it’s slim pickings. The ’70s really only had A Boy and His Dog, and then, in the 1980s, animals started to get their talk on, but still, only slightly more prevalently; there was the Japanese movie called The Adventures of Miles and Otis, and then, there were films like Turner and Hooch. Still though, only one of those stars uttered words in English and Tom Hanks does not have fur or a very wet nose. There were some talking horses in Three Amigos, which continued the equine dominance of the genre, but their kingdom would soon fall.
But let’s fast-forward to the ’90s, where the golden era of talking animal movies begins!
The year 1993 brought us the Homeward Bound remake, which gave voices to the pair of dogs and the cat that were kept silent in the original version of the film, 1963’s The Incredible Journey. Chance, a bulldog voiced by Michael J. Fox, was joined by golden retriever roommate Shadow (Don Ameche) and Sassy, a Himalayan cat voiced by the great Sally Field that lived up to her name. Their fantastic adventures across the wilderness would take them to San Francisco in a sequel, and inspire a great many other talking animal movies.
Pigs and other farm animals took center stage in 1995’s Babe and its city-slicking sequel (noticing a pattern?) and the hog wildness continued with the incredibly similar Gordy, which came out the same year.
In the late ’90s, the talking animals started coming fast and furious, with chattering creatures thrown randomly into some movies (like Men In Black and its alien pug) and others in which they took front and center (like the parrot feature Paulie and the aforementioned Air Bud). But Air Bud, a basketball prodigy of a golden retriever, never said a word — he let his dazzling athletic skill speak for him — throughout all of his subsequent movies.
But the animals in the 1998 Dr. Dolittle, which starred Eddie Murphy as the titular fur whisperer, did vocalize quite a bit. He had all sorts of talking animal friends through three successful movies, and then his “daughter” (played by Kyla Pratt) took over the family business in a movie that went straight to DVD in 2006.
By the early 2000s, there were more talking animal movies than you could shake a stick at, including several from Disney like the Beverly Hill Chihuahua franchise; the Cats and Dogs series that imagined the domesticated animals as insane warmongers (this was from WB); 2005’s Racing Stripes, which starred young Hayden Panettiere as a zebra racer (allegory!); and 2007’s Underdog, which presented an underwhelming live-action adaptation of the wimpy cartoon pup.
Boone Narr, the casting director who decided on Leo the Beagle for Underdog, had this to say about his decision:
“It was a bit like a bad blind date — because when the dog showed up at my door, he looked nothing like the photo! He was overweight and as round as he was long, and he was completely out-of-control. But, to his credit, he had a great little personality and we decided to see if we could whip him into shape.”
Important: Emmy winner Peter Dinklage and the Oscar-nominated Amy Adams are in this movie.
This brings us to the Buddies movies, of which, again, there are now seven. The spin-off series stars Mudbud, Rosebud, Buddha and Budderball, which is almost all you need to know. They’ve been on adventures for ancient treasure (Treasure Buddies); into space (Space Buddies); celebrating Halloween (Spooky Buddies); and rescuing Santa Claus (Santa Buddies), which even spawned its own Santa Paws spin-off series.
Joining the chatty canines recently is the Disney Channel’s Stan, the star of the incredible series Dog With a Blog, which is about exactly what it sounds like. Behold:
What’s next? If Kristen Bell has anything to do with it, presumably talking sloths.