Once upon a time, a fictional dog didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old Yeller, Bristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.
Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.
Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.
Dog Days of Film
The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:
- Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
- Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
- Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.
Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.
Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.
(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)
But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)
When this Trope Fails
One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.
And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.
Hooray! Fido’s alive!
Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.
But it was totes worth it, m’kay?
For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.
But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.
PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.