When I announced that I’d be writing an article about The Adventures of Milo and Otis, my friends went bonkers, deluging me with fond recollections of this childhood classic about a “curious cat and a pug-nosed pup.” The year it came out, 1989, was a big film year for me, seeing the release of several movies — Dead Poets Society, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF, and Tim Burton’s Batman — which all rank high among the media that helped shape the way I saw the world as a tween.
Milo and Otis slipped under my own radar, so I was pretty thrilled to have a chance to watch and write about it for Dogster.
The brainchild of writer-director Masanori Hata, The Adventures of Milo and Otis debuted in Japan as Koneko Monogatari (A Kitten’s Story) during the summer of 1986. Featuring limited narration interspersed with occasional poetry and a beautiful soundtrack by Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the film took four years and more than 40 hours of footage to craft in its original form. Also called The Adventures of Chatran, the film centered on a tabby kitten, Chatran (pronounced “Sha-toh-ran”), and his puppy pal, a Pug named Pusuke (pronounced “Poos-kay”).
Rescripted by Mark Saltzman, heavily edited, given a new soundtrack, and with redubbed narration by English actor Dudley Moore, the film was released in America as The Adventures of Milo and Otis in August of 1989.
Where the original version was largely quiet, meditative, and yet unflinching in terms of the struggles and challenges the young cat and Pug puppy faced in the wild, the English-language version is boisterous, joyful, and chatty. In the words of Dan Crow’s folksy, cheery theme song, “We’re gonna take a walk outside today,” or at least down memory lane, and “see what we can find” in the incredible world of Milo and Otis.
The Adventures of Milo and Otis starts out as a frenetic, rambunctious movie about innocence, exploration, and friendship. We are thrust into the story with the birth of Milo, a tiny orange kitten living on a busy but well-ordered farm. Taking his first tentative, if already mischievous, steps outside of the barn loft where he was whelped, Milo meets Otis, a baby Pug. Once Milo is provisionally satisfied that Otis is not, in fact, a cat, the two agrarian urchins become fast friends. Immediately inseparable, Milo and Otis wrestle, tend a chicken egg, and learn to navigate the boundaries of their bucolic world.
Just when the pair are most comfortable and content, a game of hide and seek goes awry and Milo drifts downriver in a box. Expressing instincts of pure love and selfless affection, Otis sets off in search of his best friend. After providing a midstream defense of Milo from a bear, Otis does not see his friend again for half the film’s running time. Their reunion is short-lived, however, as not even four minutes later, Milo meets Joyce, a lady cat, and falls in love. As fall turns to winter, and Otis feels increasingly alone, we’re reminded, not only of the rapid maturation of cats and dogs, but also of the all-too familiar and mutable nature of friendship itself.
Milo and Otis’ adventures seem to take place over the course of a single year, spanning a remarkable variety of landscapes and environments. This is nothing less than an enchanted fantasy world, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or George R.R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms. It is the world of quest romance; following the river away from the safety of the farm, Milo and Otis’s voyages take them through forest and fen, to the desert and the ocean, within sight of the mountain foothills and into the broad plains. Together and by themselves, Milo and Otis encounter beasts large and small, familiar and outlandish. They meet, befriend, and contend with animals that go on four feet — deer, hedgehogs, and foxes among them — as well as a menagerie of two-footed and footless creatures including birds, snakes, and fish.
The memories of Milo and Otis’ early friendship sustain them during their long and often perilous separation. While Milo finds temporary solace in an owl’s nest or among a litter of piglets, he must also defend himself against antagonists that range from raccoons to bears. He leaps from a cliff into the ocean to avoid a relentless seagull bombardment, and just manages to avoid the film’s only (unseen) human, rocketing toward him in a single-car train.
Otis’s adventures are no less fraught, as the Pug puppy must cross the Deadwood Swamp, a place that reminded me powerfully of the Swamps of Sadness where the horse Artax found death in The NeverEnding Story (1984). Far off Milo’s trail, Otis is later caught on an offshore rock as the tide comes in, only to be rescued, in my favorite scene, by a benevolent if world-weary sea turtle.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the lingering and persistent Milo and Otis controversy. Unsubstantiated and unproven allegations of animal cruelty have dogged The Adventures of Milo and Otis since its 1986 Japanese release. The end credits attribute “Animal Care and Supervision” to the “Mutsugoro Animal Kingdom” and assert that “The animals used were filmed under strict supervision with the utmost concern for their handling.” Thirty years on from its original filming, one can only hope that any misdeeds have long since been atoned for, and that excellent care is afforded to animals in contemporary filmmaking.
Films like Milo and Otis survive because they affect us. For you, it might evoke wistful childhood memories. In my case, I found myself transported, for just a little while, like William Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey, away from the “dreary intercourse of daily life,” or like John Keats in the Ode to a Nightingale, from the “weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.” What did you get out of it? Share your favorite scenes, memories, and the lessons you learned from Milo and Otis in the comments!
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