Oy Vey: How Animated Films Draw on Jewish Stereotypes

In lending their voice to animated movies like 'Madagascar' and 'Antz,' Jewish actors play into the long-held stereotype of the urbanized Jew who is unable to survive the wild.

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With the re-release of the movie "Finding Nemo" (2003), which made prominent use of Jewish actors, and the recent announcement of its sequel, "Finding Dory" (2015), it is perhaps timely to consider how animated films feature Jews and Jewishness.

Little to nothing has been written about the representation of Jews in animated films. Yet these films, which generally feature anthropomorphic animals, very often make use of Jewish actors. The result, consciously or otherwise, is that they also often make use of Jewish stereotypes.

This is particularly interesting given what film scholars call the "metamorphic condition": the fact that in animation literally anything can happen. The laws of physics – gravity, for example – can be flouted at any time, as can filmic conventions. Doors can bend, people can fly, liquids can turn into solids, solids back into liquids – all in the blink of an eye.

Yet despite this "anything-is-possible" rule of animation, which allows for endless feats of creativity, the genre still sticks to age-old stereotypes of Jews.

There are numerous examples of this, from the "An American Tail" films (1986-1999) to "Antz" (1998). But perhaps the best example is Dreamworks' "Madagascar" (2005), in which four zoo animals – Alex, a lion; Marty, a zebra; Melman Mankiewicz III, a giraffe; and Gloria, a hippopotamus – escape from Central Park Zoo, where they lead pampered lives, to see the world beyond the zoo.

Misconstrued as a desire to return to their native habitats, the authorities abruptly transport the animals to the wilds of Madagascar. Once there, they come into contact with an indigenous tribe of lemurs whose self-appointed leader King Julien hatches a plot to use these "New York Giants," as he calls them, to help ward off the lemurs' predators, the "fusa."

In this envisioning of nature, those animated animals whose voiceovers are provided Jewish actors play into the long-held stereotype of the Jew who, by virtue of being too urbanized, is unable to function properly in nature and the wild.

Much has been made of this stereotype in Jewish comedy and literature, from American comic Larry David's TV show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to the novels of British author Howard Jacobson, who writes in "Coming from Behind": "In the highly improbable event of his being asked to nominate the one most un-Jewish thing he could think of, Sefton Goldberg would have been hard pressed to decide between Nature – that's to say birds, trees, flowers, and country walks – and football – that's to say beer, bikes, mud, and physical pain."

Significantly, three of the five key animals in "Madagascar" are voiced by Jewish actors – among them, Ben Stiller as Alex and David Schwimmer as Melman. Both Stiller and Schwimmer are repeatedly typecast as the nebbish or schlemiel: Stiller has starred in "Meet the Parents" (2000), "Meet the Fockers" (2004) and "Along Came Polly" (2004), each time playing the nebbish Jew. Schwimmer, meanwhile, is best known for playing geeky palaeontologist Ross Geller in the long-running television series "Friends" (1994-2004). And Julien, the self-proclaimed lemur king, is voiced by North London Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who is famous for playing Ali G, Borat and Bruno.

Drawing upon their previous roles, as well as their real-life personae, all three characters can be interpreted as Jews mimicking wild animals. Alex's characterization in particular draws upon the anti-Semitic characterization of the male Diaspora Jew as less than manly. The star of the zoo, Alex, is pampered and groomed; he need not fend for himself or hunt. He is served raw steak on a silver platter.

As a tamed and comfortable zoo animal, Alex has no real knowledge of anything beyond the walls of the zoo. Consequently he does not know how to be a proper lion in the wild – he dances for a living. He cannot even roar properly – he emits a meek, feeble and tame sound, not that of a lion in the wild. For "lion," read "man."

In the sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" (2008), it is revealed that Alex has never had to fight. Because he was captured and transferred to America he also never learned to hunt, the key characteristic of any male lion's transition to manhood. Alex is thus permanently infantilized. This is reinforced when he finally participates in the lion version of a coming-of-age ceremony/rite of passage – his lion bar mitzvah, as it were. At the ceremony he dwarfs the other participants, mere cubs on the cusp of manhood.

Melman, meanwhile, shares a surname with the well-known Jewish film director, screenwriter and producer Joseph Leo Mankiewicz (1909-1993). And like Woody Allen he is a hysterical hypochondriac, obsessed with the state of his own health, both physical and psychiatric – hypochondria being yet another stereotype of the unmanly Jewish male.

Melman receives constant medical treatment for a host of psychosomatic conditions: MRIs, CAT scans, injections, flu shots. He wears braces and crutches, takes pills and undergoes other various treatments. He cannot be transferred because he has "an appointment with Dr. Goldberg at five." In the sequel Melman believes he is suffering from an incurable giraffe malady.

As Jewish animals, Alex and Melman have a decidedly anti-naturalistic outlook, as illustrated by the following conversation:

Alex: The wild? Are you nuts? That is the worst idea I have ever heard!

Melman: It's unsanitary!

Marty: The penguins are going, so why can't I?

Alex: Because the penguins are psychotic!

When they arrive in Madagascar, Melman shouts, "Ah! Nature! It's all over me! Get it off!"

In this way, both Alex and Melman manifest their shared belief in the malevolent role that the natural world is often said to occupy in the Yiddish mindset. An example of this is what the American literary scholar Andrew Furman points to as the almost complete lack of Yiddish terms for describing particular types of trees, flowers and birds.

Without revealing too much about the plot, these "Jewish" animals manage to survive in nature, but only by adapting it and making it more "urban" and "urbane." The result is that they reinforce erstwhile stereotypes, even in a genre in which anything is supposed to be possible. 

A scene from Madagascar.Credit: Dreamworks

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