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Childhood Revisited: The Adventures of Milo & Otis

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What childhood movie did you love? Which scared you? And how does it play now, watching it again as an adult? In this new feature, our writers revisit the films that affected them as kids.

Kittens are cute, right? And puppies are cute, too, yeah? Well, is there anything cuter? Puppies and kittens playing together, naturally. That’s pretty much all I could actively recall about watching The Adventures of Milo & Otis as a child, and speaking as a critic after an all-grown-up viewing, it’s still so cute that it makes you want to vomit up rainbows. In a good way. While the storytelling may occasionally be slight and the narration frequently tends towards the cloying, it’s never any more or less than what it presents itself as to the young and old alike: a heartwarming tale of friendship between animals.

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I was prepared to go into Milo & Otis with a critic’s coldly rational scalpel and get into the subtexts and underlying themes of the movie. With any luck, my beloved childhood movie would be a subtle metaphor for dysfunctional relationships or possibly even for the tense détente between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War Two (the pug dog would be the Russians). But as the story of a tabby kitten named Milo and a pug puppy named Otis went on, there seemed to be no sign of this. Milo and Otis grow up together on a farm that seems to house no humans, with the curious cat getting into trouble, the loyal dog defending him and eventually a road trip of sorts takes place. Animal acquaintances are made, including a rather buffoonish fox, a jerk of a raccoon and a friendly family of pigs. Inter-species conflict seemed largely defined by the standard of “which large animal wants to eat them” (answer: usually it’s a bear) and while narrator Dudley Moore anthropomorphizes various animal characters through a variety of squeaky, fey British voices, it’s mostly only to the extent that the filmmakers were able to capture personalities onscreen.

And I did find more of interest in researching the making of the film. Milo & Otis was directed and written by Masanori Hata, with filming taking place over four years and over 40 hours of footage, which is a lot of adorable animal hi-jinks to capture on camera. Then the footage was re-edited, altered and essentially reconstructed to appeal to occidental audiences, including the narration courtesy of Arthur himself. Without knowing this, I doubt it would have ever occurred to me that all this footage of animals romping had another cultural shape, but now quite a bit more of it seems odd in retrospect. In particular, as the story goes on and both Milo and Otis find suitable lady-animal companions to settle down with as they wait out winter and return to their farm, it shifts abruptly from the gamboling of kitten- and puppyhood to parenthood. Even more odd, the scenes in which Otis’s mate, Sondra (the film emphasizes that it’s pronounced in the French fashion, for whatever reason), gives birth to a litter of pug puppies is startlingly graphic, though brief. And I mean graphic for any movie, let alone a children’s one: I literally sat up and had to ask myself, “Wait, did that smaller dog just come out of the larger dog onscreen?”

But aside from that brief instructional doggy birth scene, and the shift in tone so late in the movie (which is only 75 minutes in its American form), Milo & Otis is one of the rare children’s movies that remains as delightful and uncomplicated to an adult as it did to a youngster.

by Nathan Kamal

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