Anthropomorphism in Disney Films and Wildlife Documentaries

*published for revision by Pablo Leighton (24/05/16)*

Anthropomorphism is a prevalent theme in films, which is used to connect with audiences. This theme is predominantly used in Disney films and is attributed to animals, allowing us to identify with them and invite them into our homes. The success of Disney films can be attributed to their ability to convey a world that is similar to our own, conveying human tendencies in animals to enhance our connection and empathy for their situation (Leane and Pfennigwerth 2013, p. 32). We look to animals in film to reaffirm our values and beliefs, such as in Disney films Finding Nemo and Lilo and Stitch. Anthropomorphism is also used in wildlife documentaries, in order to enhance an audience’s emotive response to a documentary. However, is this theme appropriately used in wildlife documentaries? Anthropomorphism helps audiences to learn valuable lessons in Disney films, but, this theme can mislead audiences when used in wildlife documentaries.

Anthropomorphism is the “attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object” (Oxford Dictionaries 2016). This theme arguably fills the void of animals in our society, with Berger (1992, p. 26) stating that the “commercial diffusion of animal imagery, all began as animals started to be withdrawn from daily life”. The role of anthropomorphism in films is to dually “socialize the viewer by drawing upon existing values and in so doing further authenticate associations between animal symbols and value systems” (Pandey 2004, p. 50). This theme is successfully used in Disney films, enabling the audience to relate to the animals and learn valuable life lessons, as they resemble a world close to the audience’s own (Leane and Pfennigwerth 2013, p. 32). Finding Nemo conveys the importance of family through anthropomorphised marine life. The relationship between a father and son clownfish conveys a family’s enduring love and protection. It also instils in viewers the importance of obeying your parents, otherwise there will be dire consequences. Dory, another fish in Finding Nemo, teaches viewers that in order to get through tough times, you “just keep swimming” (Stryker 2015). This is arguably the most famous quote from the film and enables the audience to resonate with this situation, as it most likely resembles a situation that they have experienced at some point in their lives. Lilo and Stitch is another film that also stresses the importance of family, as well as kindness. Lilo teaches Stitch (her pet alien dog) the importance of being nice to others and the value of “ohana”, which means family in Hawaiian (Leventi-Perez 2011). This film teaches its viewers to respect your family and that you will be accepted by society if you exhibit kindness and care for others.

Finding Nemo (Source: SheKnows 2012)
Finding Nemo quote (Source: Stryker 2015)
Lilo and Stitch quote (Source: Poff 2015)

Wildlife documentaries often use anthropomorphism in order to engage their audience and to evoke an emotional response from them. They often follow a narrative structure that is similar to a fictional film, taking the audience on a journey, introducing villains and heroes, in order to connect with the viewer (Evans 2016). These documentaries often highlight the ferocity of villainous animals such as sharks and bears, in order to instil fear in the audience and to enhance the narrative of the film (Palmer 2016). As a result, the audience forget the issues at hand of protecting these creatures because the audience view them as killers (Palmer 2016). Anthropomorphising animals in wildlife documentaries often mislead the audience and hinder their understanding of the true situation faced by the animals (Boswall cited in Palmer 2016). Wildlife documentaries heavily edit and fabricate scenes in order to convey a narrative that is similar to Disney films, thus presenting the audience with an exciting and engaging film (Evans 2016). This can mislead audiences and create a false representation of the animals’ wellbeing in their natural habitat. This was particularly the case in David Attenborough’s The Frozen Planet documentary, where the birth of a polar bear was not captured in Antarctica, but in a fabricated den in a zoo (Evans 2016). This anthropomorphised scene aimed to engage the audience by capturing a situation that they can relate to through conveying themes of family and love. However, the audience were unaware that the scene was filmed in a zoo. This raises ethical issues in misleading the audience’s beliefs as they are swept up into a fabricated “reality” that they often forget when viewing a film (Evans 2016).

Anthropomorphism is successfully used in Disney films to resonate with their audience by depicting an environment similar to their own, reaffirming their values and beliefs (Leane and Pfennigwerth 2013, p. 32). However, wildlife documentaries must be aware of this theme’s ability to mislead their audience, hindering their audience’s awareness of the need to protect the animals presented in the documentary.



Berger, J 1992, About Looking, Peter Smith Publisher.

Evans, N 2016, ‘Looking at Animals’, lecture, BCM310, University of Wollongong, delivered 23 March 2016.

Leane, E & Pfennigwerth, S 2011, ‘Marching on Thin Ice: The Politics of Penguin Films’, in C Freeman, E Leane &Y Watt (eds), Considering Animals, Great Britain, pp. 29-40.

Leventi-Perez, O 2011, ‘Disney’s Portrayal of Nonhuman Animals in Animated Films Between 2000 and 2010’, thesis, Georgia State University, Atlanta.

Oxford Dictionaries 2016, anthropomorphism, Oxford Dictionaries, viewed 26 March 2016, <>.

Palmer, C 2016, Into the Wild, Ethically: Nature Filmmakers Need a Code of Conduct, International Documentary Association, viewed 23 May 2016, <>.

Pandey, A 2004, ‘Disney’s Designs: The Semiotics of Animal Icons in Animated Movies’, Sankofa, vol. 3, pp. 50-61.

Poff, JM 2015, Lilo and Stitch quote, image, Buzzfeed, viewed 27 March 2016, <>.

SheKnows, 2012, Finding Nemo, image, SheKnows, viewed 27 March 2016, <>.

Stryker, S 2013, Finding Nemo quote, image, Buzzfeed, viewed 27 March 2016, <>.



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