The magic of The Adventures of Milo and Otis begins almost immediately, with the first notes of the strumming guitar over the 1989 Columbia Pictures logo. Then fade to black, as the music transitions into pleasant piano notes until, finally, climaxing with Dan Crow’s singing voice. The song is “Walk Outside”, and I make an effort to describe these moments that open the film because they bring back so many old memories, and evoke so much nostalgia that I can say without a doubt that my earliest memories of the film begin with this song.
The film has become increasingly controversial today, mostly with animal rights activists -- who suspect that director Masanori Hata was enforcing animal cruelty on the set, despite a notice in the end credits that the animals used “were filmed under strict supervision with the utmost concern for their handling.” But some of the sequences in the film are so perilous- most notoriously the scene in which a wooden box plunges down a waterfall with a helpless cat trapped inside- that they do not appear as though they could have been accomplished without cruelty. Years later, the American Humane Society would try to investigate the conditions of the making of the film, only to come up empty-handed. There have always been stories of cats dying during the production, as well as that dreaded rumor of a female assistant breaking a cat’s paw in order to get it to limp onscreen, but they have never been validated. The Human Society's website sums up the results of their investigation in frank disappointment: “Everything has led to a dead end."
I, like most, am curious to know if anything serious happened to any of the animals on the set, but I am also worried that such truths would affect my appreciation for the film -- the kind of appreciation that would be better left unspoiled. Illegally carried out or not, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a masterfully crafted little film: gorgeous cinematography by Hideo Fujji and Shinji Tomita; brisk editing by Walt Mulconery, Chizuko Osada and Peter H. Verity; enchanting music by Michael Boddicker; and, yes, tremendous directing by Masanori Hata. Believe it or not, it took him and his crew four years to complete this film, and, as a result, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, in its finalized 76-minute running time, is something unique: one of the best family films ever made.
Movies like this are rarely ever regarded as art. The “live-action animals” genre more or less kicked off with The Incredible Journey (1963), Fletcher Markle’s Disney fable about two dogs and a cat who trek across Canada to reunite with their owners (remade in 1993 as the crass Homeward Bound). In the 1970’s, the genre made vast improvements with Joe Camp’s immortal Benji (1974) and Hall Bartlett’s surreal, unfairly-maligned Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973). In the 1990’s, George Miller and Chris Noonan perfected the problem of animal voiceovers with their splendid Babe pictures.
Yet perhaps the 1980’s produced the two single-greatest titles the genre has ever conceived. If Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982) remains the finest film ever made from the point of view of an animal, then The Adventures of Milo and Otis is certainly the most beautifully naturalistic. What makes it so different from other films about animals is that there are no human presences -- anywhere in the film- with maybe the exception of a rumbling train that almost runs over Milo during his long trek to nowhere. It is a film about friendship, and yet it is also a wrenching film about the survival of the fittest, told from the animal point of view in ways that Jack London and George Orwell never thought of.
Being a Japanese production, The Adventures of Milo and Otis was released in its home country in 1986, but didn’t get its U.S. release until 1989 --- the 1989 version is the version I’ve grown up with and, thus, choose to critique. The priceless English narration by Dudley Moore (hilariously described by Ty Burr as “drunken uncle narration”) has always stuck with me, and it is hard not to imitate the peculiar way Moore tries to assume Milo and Otis’ personalities.
Consider the scene in which Milo, an orange cat, and Otis, a pug, first meet. One is a kitten at the time, and another is a puppy, and because of Milo’s mischievous behavior (tumbling out of bed against his Mother's wishes), he meets Otis purely by accident- and, as if by impulse, starts wrestling with him. "You're a strange-looking cat!" he squeals (at least, according to Moore's daffy narration and the Mark Saltzman script). When Otis explains that he is a dog, Milo replies, "Well, alright, a dog, I understand! But deep down inside, we're all cats, right?" But Otis stands his ground: "No... no! Deep down inside, I'm a dog!" Pretty bizarre for a first meeting, but somehow Milo and Otis have already become best friends.
We get introduced to some of Milo and Otis' friends and family members around the farm at which they live (somewhat poorly taken care of by whoever owns the place, seeing as how each of these animals is always constantly misbehaving), but these brief scenes are merely a setup for the scene that everybody remembers from the film: the sequence in which Milo gets inside a wooden box buoyed calmly on the nearby river, and "hides" from Otis until the box inadvertently begins floating down the river, thus triggering Milo and Otis' magnificent, dangerous adventure. And this, in turn, eventually leads to the infamous moment in which Milo miraculously survives a plunge down a waterfall.
I want to pause to talk more about this scene in greater detail. Halfway through the sequence, the river suddenly transitions into a series of rapids; at one point, there is a gap that jerks the wooden box over into the next section of the rapids so violently that Milo ought to have fallen out- but he doesn't. Then, Masanori Hata pulls us back into a birds-eye view of the rapids, and we realize that the box is headed straight for a waterfall. After that, Hata cuts to a closeup of Milo, cuts back to the waterfall, cuts back to Milo one last time, and then proceeds to show the box as it glides perfectly down the waterfall's face. Again, it is impossible to believe that a cat could have survived this stunt -- much less kept from falling out of the box -- but Milo does it. The box splashes to the bottom of the river, and, sure enough, there is Milo. Inside the box. Safe, alive, meowing, and all in one piece.
That scene is quite a thrill, but the scene that follows is in some respects even more captivating. Night has fallen, and Milo is fearfully peering from the box as it continues to float down the river, while unknown creatures make noises out in the darkness. Moore hauntingly narrates: "His trip down the river wasn't fun any more. It had turned into something lonely and frightening. He began to wish he had never jumped into this box. He began to wish... he was home." And then Moore segues into a truly mystifying coda: "In the water, Milo could see the reflection of the moon. It seemed to be trembling as much as he was, in the chilly, misty night. Sleep was not possible. He drifted on through the darkness, hoping to find the morning waiting just around the bend."
In another one of the film's more controversial sequences, Milo leaps off a cliff into the ocean, in order to escape an outraged flock of seagulls. I have studied this particular scene, which is shot in slow-motion, and cannot tell whether the figure falling is a real cat, or a special effect, or even a toy. Regardless, Milo appears alive and well once he rises back up to the ocean's surface. With that being said, all of the criticisms of this sequence (and, also, the waterfall sequence) are completely valid.
The film's scarier moments are burned in my memory. I have never forgotten the disturbing image of an innocent field mouse being snatched up from the forest ground by a ravenous screech owl, to Milo's horror. Or Otis' brave effort to distract a hungry bear from attempting to devour Milo during his trip down the river, in one of the earlier scenes. Or the vicious duel between a raccoon and another bear over Milo's newly-caught fish (there is a humorous moment when the struggle between the raccoon and the bear becomes so heated that Milo is knocked back into the weeds). Or Milo's game of cat-and-mouse with another bear (all told, Milo runs into about three bears on his journey) when he is cornered in an abandoned shack on the beach. These scenes made me anxious as a child: they forced me to think long and hard about whether or not Milo and Otis' family members are worrying about them back home. And not just that, but whether or not they are even aware of their absence, much less care. Indeed, if they would even recognize Milo and Otis once they return. Such an emotional response is only a further confirmation of the film's unexpected power, especially for juvenile audience members.
Otis, of course, runs into some troubles of his own in his quest to rescue Milo; there is a wonderful sequence in which he literally rides across ocean shores on the shell of a grumpy sea turtle. Another sequence in the film that looks equally impossible, but is real, is the scene in which Milo and Otis finally reunite, after Otis finds Milo helplessly trapped in a deep pit. Amazingly, Otis is able to pull Milo out with a rope -- how this sequence plays out, I will leave for you to discover.
The Adventures of Milo and Otis has always been a film I have treasured. I believe it will continue to be treasured for years and years- and, in time, perhaps even Masanori Hata will be recognized as a sort of forgotten great filmmaker. It's too bad that his filmmaking career never took off after this film; maybe it has something to do with the animal cruelty rumors. They are likely going to follow Hata and his crew members to the grave.
Do the rumors bother me? Maybe a little. I condemn any acts of cruelty that Hata may or may not have inflicted onto his animals. However, that will never erase my overall appreciation for his film, and how his visualizations so spectacularly came to life. When The Adventures of Milo and Otis begins, Milo and Otis are pesky little farm offspring. By the time the film rolls towards its conclusion, they have both matured into grown, sexually-active animals. Milo finds a mate in the angelic white cat "Joyce", while Otis, out of sheer luck, finds a female pug ("Sandra", with French pronunciation) up in the snowy mountains. Both Joyce and Sandra produce litters.
Hence, Milo and Otis become fathers. And once they bring their two new families together for the very first time, that serves as a lovely finish for Masanori Hata's charming story about a cat and a dog whose adventures take them down a road less traveled by. Or, as Dudley Moore so eloquently sums it up in his closing narration, "The road that would take them to the place where their lives had begun. The road that would take them... home."