100 Film Favorites – #66: The Adventures of Milo and Otis
(Masanori Hata, 1989)
Sometimes foreign films will be re-packaged for release in America, and get rather sneakily passed off as something more “home-grown.” This is a particularly frequent occurrence in entertainment media aimed at children. Films I remember from my childhood which were less than forthright with their true country of origin include The Princess and the Goblin (Hungarian) and Columbus: The Magic Voyage (German). Even English-language programs are repurposed in this manner, as in the case of Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy, and Bob the Builder, all British in origin, but featuring an American narrator in their stateside release. Why, even Waldo of Where’s Waldo? fame actually hails from the U.K., where he’s called “Wally.”
The Adventures of Milo and Otis was originally released in Japan in 1986 as Koneko Monogatari (“A Kitten’s Story”). It was apparently heavily modified for its American release three years later, but as I’ve only scene the American version, that’s what I’ll be talking about here.
The film features no human characters, and consists entirely of footage of various animals, with narration lending coherence to the story. The narrative opens one morning on a farm, where a litter of kittens has just been born. One of the newborn cats, an orange kitten named Milo, is especially curious, and soon ventures elsewhere in the barn, where he meets Otis, a young pug puppy. Milo and Otis become friends, and primarily spend their time gamboling around the farm doing cute baby animal things.
One day, however, the impetuous Milo’s curiosity gets the better of him. While playing at the end of a dock near the farm, the kitten climbs into a cardbord box, which plops into the river and quickly floats away. Otis gives chase, but is unable to catch up with the box. Milo drifts out of sight, and soon both Milo and Otis are hopelessly lost. Over the following weeks and months, Milo ventures through one hazard after another. The river carries him over a waterfall, he’s attacked by crows and a lobster, and he must cross a bleak, dead marsh. All the while, Otis attempts to follow Milo’s trail, often coming within mere yards of finding his friend, but never succeeding.
Eventually, “the curious cat and the pug-nosed pup” realize they may never find one another or their home again, and begin making lives of their own in the wilderness. As the winter approaches, they each find mates and sire litters of their own (a simple enough prospect for Milo, I suppose, as stray cats are fairly common, but I imagine in reality Otis might have some trouble trying to locate a female among Japan’s [presumably] sparse feral pug population). The cat and dog hunker down with their respective young broods for the winter. Then, one day, while hunting for food in the snowy woods, Milo and Otis chance to meet. The reunited friends excitedly introduce one another to their new families. The families help each other through the winter, and with the coming of the spring, they locate a trail which will lead them home.
“The Adventures of Milo and Otis” is a fairly simple story, but that’s what gives the film its character and strength. What starts out as a vignette about cute animals running around on a farm reaches unexpected emotional depths when Otis loses his friend, then diligently continues the search even once he himself has lost the way home and realized he may never find Milo either.
While the events and challenges the characters face are fairly episodic, and not necessarily related to one another, this patchwork style works, and really captures the feeling of Milo and Otis’ lives unfolding. Life doesn’t necessarily follow a grand narrative arc. It’s a series of surprises and challenges that might not be directly related, and we hope we have a friend to share the journey. And as long as life goes on, that journey continues. As the last verse of “Gonna Take a Walk Outside Today,” the song which opens and closes the film, says:
“Our story’s over, and we’re heading back home.
With a very good friend, you’re never alone.
Stories to tell, and stories to hear.
And there’ll be a lot more in the coming year.
Our story has come to an end,
But we’ll have more to share, my friend,
Tomorrow morning when the sun comes up
On a curious cat and a pug-nosed pup.
Tidbit: This is a rather darker note, but if anyone’s familiar with the film they might think me remiss not to mention it – Rumors persist that laws intended to prevent animal cruelty were rather laxly enforced during production of this film. Particularly in the scene where Milo goes over a cliff on a waterfall, the filmmakers are rumored to have gone through more than a few “Milos.”
These claims have never been verified, one way or the other. But as I said, rumors persist, and nearly every review of the film touches on the matter.