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A Surprisingly Large Number of Animal-Focused Films Have Chosen Oregon as Their Backdrop

Cozy up with some Oregon stars—both fuzzy and flippered—by streaming these movies at home.

Before COVID-19 closed movie theaters for the foreseeable future, an excellent new Kelly Reichardt film, First Cow, was set to open this month. On one hand, it was (or is—A24 promises to release the movie later this year) a parable of early capitalism via two Oregon Territory milk thieves. Looked at more simply, though, it spotlights one very lovable and handsome cow.

Though Evie (the cow) sits alone atop the Oregon rankings for Best Bovine Movie Stars, that goes only for members of her species. The state has a long and bizarre history of animal-centric pictures. As for why, give credit to the Oregon wilderness, the tax breaks and the last vestiges of the American frontier.

It's a history that includes young movie stars, accidental maulings, some genuinely great films, and a dollop of '90s sap that might still elicit tears. While stuck inside, you might as well stream a few and gain an appreciation for our unusual lineup of animal stars.


A two-horse race

Andrew Haigh's 2017 Lean On Pete, filmed at Portland Meadows and the Eastern Oregon town of Burns, is a beautifully observant tale of a wayward teenager and a doomed racehorse. Haigh is a master of human drama, and Starsky, who plays Pete, is a committed horse actor. That said, a far stranger Oregon horse movie is 1945's Thunderhead: Son of Flicka in which a series of violent confrontations unfold around the false lineage of an albino racehorse.


Lucky dogs

The best Oregon dog picture, pound for pound, has to be Wendy and Lucy, a 2008 Reichardt film about a drifter (Michelle Williams) and her pup stranded in North Portland. While Lucy's disappearance hangs over much of the film, it's a classically incisive social examination by the director.

Then, there are the The Incredible Journey (1963) and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993). Oregon stands in for Canada and California, respectively, but both the Disney original and remake are mainly excuses to be emotionally manipulated by how many miles your pets will walk because they love you.

Finally, let us not forget that famed canine thespian Rin Tin Tin (ask your grandpa), filmed in Oregon for 1924's Find Your Man. Was he a bigger diva than Benjean, who visited to make Benji the Hunted in 1987? We'll never know.


Monkey business

Originally titled Toby's Gorilla, 1985's A Summer to Remember probably changed its name because it's not about a gorilla. Instead, the film chronicles the friendship between a deaf boy and an escaped orangutan that knows how to sign. Mostly forgettable, it's a relic of how actors like Louise Fletcher and Burt Young slummed it through a bygone era of network TV movies. And before you ask, no, we have no time to debate whether Sasquatch movies count as ape movies.


Will someone please free Willy?

Here we get right back to '90s family-core for more emotional manipulation. Free Willy (1993), the incredibly lucrative tale of a streetwise orphan befriending a borderline-abused orca, combines Portland and Astoria to form a fictional city that is approximately 70 percent water. If you're rewatching for the first time in decades, get ready for a severely miscast Michael Madsen and the distracting irony of advocating the freedom for a whale by filming a captive whale.


Cat got your movie star?

Last and definitely weirdest in this lineup is 1972's Napoleon and Samantha, further proof that most animal movies are about broken children who just need friends. When his grandfather dies, young Napoleon (Johnny Whitaker) tries to elude the foster system and keep hanging out with his pet lion with help from a 28-year-old Michael Douglas and 10-year-old Jodie Foster. Shot in dusty John Day, Napoleon and Samantha is likewise fairly forgettable, save the fact that Foster was mauled by her lion co-star but went back to work.


Finally, a few Oregon-made titles you should not mistake for animal pictures:

Animal House (1978): Some of these dudes are barely human, though.

Elephant (2003): Do not watch Gus Van Sant's tragic Palme d'Or winner expecting Dumbo.

Bronco Billy (1980): Clint Eastwood runs an Old West show but barely goes near a bronco.

Wild (2014): No four-legged actors here, unless you count Reese Witherspoon's CGI fox friend.