"Milo and Otis" as a Social Commentary

Andrew Saunders


In her book, Dog Love, Marjorie Garber proposes the idea that fictional works that offer representations of canines are often used not to tell us about dogs, but to tell us about ourselves.  “The Adventures of Milo and Otis,” directed and based on a story by Masanori Hata, stars a pug-nosed puppy that Garber would believe possesses many of the traits we deem ideal in humans, and also offers several moral truths and social maxims about human society.

The ways in which we as humans represent our relationships with dogs are explored in Dog Love.  Garber assumes on the role of a cultural critic through her book, commenting on the role and social value dog representations have in our society, as represented in various artifacts: novels, films, advertisements, etc.  She believes that through dog stories we create the ideal human, assigning valued human characteristics to the canine protagonist.  She states, “The dog becomes the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans” (Garber 15).  In our society, we no longer turn to our fellow men and women for the embodiment of virtue; we instead look to “man’s best friend.”

Canine tales are becoming an ever-more-popular medium for expression, says Garber:  “Just as the pathos of human love and loss is most effectively retold, in modern stories, through the vehicle of the steadfastly loyal and loving dog, so the human hero has increasingly been displaced and replaced by the canine one” (44).  The spotlight has been shifted from the larger-than-life human to the humble family pet and his canine brethren.  Stories that feature a dog rather than a person are able to more convey a deeper sense of meaning, establishing their point far more effectively than human stories, as we often dismiss a story about an individual as just that--a story that applies only to the specific individual.  However, “dog stories transcend the personal [and] permit thoughts about the general instead.  Few human readers of Lassie will set her experiences aside because they can’t identity (sic) with a collie” (34).

Garber also finds broad truths about society in the ways dogs are assigned human qualities: “Readers and writers, adults as well as children, anthropomorphize in order to regain their sense of a collective human experience” (34).  In characterizing dogs using human traits, we circumvent the problem of creating an ideal man or woman.  The cynical attitude of our society makes it very difficult to “believe in” an ideal human, so we instead turn to dogs to embody the values and traits we find absent in humans.  She sums up her beliefs about the presentation of human social truths with the statement, “the quintessence of the ‘human’ is often found in the dog” (34).
When we analyze dog fiction using Garber’s assumptions, we are able to view even the simplest stories in a meaningful way.  Suddenly “Milo and Otis” is more than an  animal film for grammar school children.  It becomes a rich social commentary that shows us the traits we idealize in our society (those possessed by the puppy Otis), and presents us with broad moral truths that define humanity.

The story began on a sunny, spring or summer day on a farm with the birth of a litter of several kittens, which sparked the curiosity of a small, tan, pug-nosed puppy named Otis.  He soon had his first encounter with Milo, a feisty orange kitten, and the two became best friends.  Soon after the kittens were old enough to explore the farm on their own, Milo hopped into a wooden crate floating near the dock and was carried down the river.  Otis rushed off to his rescue, but Milo was drifting away faster than he could run.  The two friends became separated and both knew they were far from home.  Milo had a rough journey in the crate, which began with an encounter with a bear, and once he finally washed ashore set off to find food and shelter.  Otis could think of nothing other than tracking down his friend Milo and their eventual return home.  He began his search for Milo immediately after they were separated, and became deeply concerned when he found a large, black bird perched on his friend’s crate.  While they were apart, both encountered strange new creatures, some friendly and some dangerous.  Eventually, the two friends were reunited after Otis rescued Milo from a deep pit, and they began their journey home.  On the way, Milo encountered a beautiful white female cat named Joyce, and Otis decided to find his own way home rather than be a “third wheel.”  In his travels, he met another “pug-nosed pup” named Sandra and spent the winter with her.  Unbeknownst to the other, each of the friends became a father on nearly the same day.  Milo and Otis had a chance encounter in an abandoned shack when Otis left his den searching for food.  Milo spotted Otis and called out to him, and the two friends agreed to gather their families in the spring and head back to the farm together.  Spring arrived, and Milo and Otis reunited to return with their litters to the place where their lives began.

The character of Otis the dog embodies many characteristics and qualities that we view as ideal in humans.  He strikes a perfect balance between aggression and pacifism, and knows when each type of behavior is appropriate.  For example, when a baby chick is convinced that Otis is its mother, he is willing to put up with this minor annoyance.  However, when it becomes clear that the chick has no intention of leaving his side, he tells the chick in a gruff voice that in order to be a dog, you have to be a “rough, tough, mean, fighting dog.”  This is sufficient to send the chick running to its real mother.  Otis has a very strong, yet simple, sense of self-identity, and it gives him a sense of clarity rarely found in humans.  In one of the opening lines of the movie, Milo questions Otis about what type of animal he is, and Otis responds, “Deep down inside, I am a dog.”  There is no inner conflict about his identity; he is a dog, and that is all he cares to know.
Otis also shows himself to be more responsible and wise than his peers.  When he is asked by a hen to watch her egg, he takes this job very seriously.  Milo wants to kick the egg around and make a game of it, but Otis stands firm in his appointed position of watchdog, and refuses to let Milo play with it.  Another ideal quality that Otis exhibits is his superior intelligence, which is shown several times throughout the film.  When Milo is playing on the dock and floats downstream in the box, Otis has an understanding of the "bigger picture."  Milo is laughing and enjoying himself as he drifts away, but Otis realizes that the fun will not continue for long and he must rescue his friend.  He runs downstream to a bridge in an attempt to intercept Milo, and when he fails, he is quick to spot the imminent danger that is approaching.  Milo’s box is drifting directly toward a bear on the shore, and Otis’ bravery becomes apparent.  He immediately charges up to the bear and attacks him, protecting Milo, without thinking about his safety.  Only after the bear’s focus has been shifted completely away from Milo does Otis realize that he has put himself in grave danger by taking on such a large foe.
It is very valuable to possess proper etiquette and social skills in our society, and Otis seems to be aware of this. When he is on the beach he decides that he should ask a clam if it has seen his friend Milo, but poses the question, “How do you talk to a clam?”  His answer is simple: use the one word that everyone understands—“please.”  At another point on his journey across the shore, he is caught on a sandbar when the tide comes in swiftly. A turtle comes to his rescue, and Otis apologizes for the inconvenience and thanks him profusely and sincerely, even after this near-death experience.  Near the end of the film, Milo meets Joyce, and the two are infatuated with each other. Otis quickly becomes the third wheel, and not wanting to be a tag-along, he decides to head off on his own.

Loyalty to those you love is another trait that is held in very high esteem in our society.  We see that Otis truly cares for his friend when he sees a large black bird perched ominously on Milo’s crate.  He runs over to the bird in a panic and is overcome with dread as he looks in the box.  Milo is not inside, and Otis had feared the worst.  In another example, Otis realizes, in the dead of winter, that he must brave the elements and bring food home to his pups and their mother.  He becomes lost and nearly freezes to death, but the one thought that keeps him going is “What will happen to my family?”  When he finally does find food (a catch of fish from Milo after a brief reunion), he does not stop to eat any of it himself.  He was close to death only moments earlier, but drags the entire catch back to his family without thinking of himself.  Throughout Otis’ journey, through every obstacle and hardship, he never deviates from his mission: to find his friend Milo and return home safely with him.  Even after they both have families, Otis’ loyalty to his friend stands firm.  He makes plans for them to reunite in the spring and head home, back to the farm on which they were born and raised.

Garber uses several narrative models to describe the general flow of “dog stories.”  The story of Milo and Otis falls into the “picaresque” category.  The film follows the description of “a series of loosely connected episodes detailing the adventures of . . . the hero” in which the “’sidekick’ aspect . . . is also relevant” (64).  The story progresses in the picaresque manner: it is a string of chance encounters with various animals and situations that are connected loosely by Otis’ continuing quest for his friend Milo.  It is unlikely that the tale is “Wordsworthian,” a type of story that uses the medium of the dog to recount the author’s experiences of lost childhood (65), because there is a complete lack of interaction with human society in the film.  It could be argued that the scriptwriter was telling the story of his youth through the animals, perhaps the story of two brothers leaving home in different directions and eventually reuniting, but we have no basis from which to derive this.  The story could also be argued as “Dickensian,” in which “the typical narrative includes a dog wrenched by theft, accident, or change of ownership from a happy home to a life of suffering and servitude, and his or her triumphant and . . . dogged return . . . to health and contentment” (65).  Otis is removed from his happy, carefree life on the farm; and although he encounters various obstacles, one is hard pressed to say that his life became one of “suffering” and certainly not one of “servitude.”  Garber adds another qualifier onto this definition: “that the dog suffers losses and cruelties at the hands of society” (66), and this gives even more reason to rule out this category, as, again, the story lacks any interaction with human society.  We conclude that the film follows “canine picaresque,” which Garber says “is, more often than not, an account taken from life” (64), and this statement gives additional strength to the idea that “Milo and Otis” is an ideal “dog story” from which to derive social truths.

Friendship is a central aspect of “Milo and Otis,” and the idea that true friendship will overcome many obstacles, including time, and remain intact is a social truth expressed by the film.  The friendship that Milo and Otis share is the driving force of the entire story.  They are separated; the friendship survives.  They are reunited; the friendship is still there.  Each of them takes a mate, they separate to raise families; their friendship is overshadowed for awhile.  But at the close of the story, the two friends are reunited with families in tow, and they head back to the farm together with their friendship as strong as ever.  True friendship, it seems, can transcend anything.
The most powerful maxim that the story of Milo and Otis presents involves the idea of “home.”  Garber repeatedly states that “Home is where the dog is” (38), and this may be restated as “home is where the dog longs to be” to more accurately fit this story.  Garber quotes from Homer’s The Odyssey to further illuminate this idea:

There, full of vermin, lay Argus the hound.  But directly he became aware of Odysseus’ presence, he wagged his tail and dropped his ears, though he lacked the strength now to come nearer his master.  Odysseus turned his eyes away, and…brushed away a tear…As for Argus, the black hand of Death descended on him the moment he caught sight of Odysseus – after twenty years.  (38)
For twenty long years, Argus longed to reunite with his master, and this reunion was the completion of his life.  He had come full-circle; he had made it home, and could now die.

Although Otis originally sets out on a mission to find his friend, they are both searching for their way home to the place where their lives began together.  Neither Milo nor Otis is the master of the other; but their lives are incomplete without one another, much as Argus’ life was incomplete without Odysseus. When the two friends finally reunite and head back home, there is no reference to what happens after they reach the farm, and certainly no hint of death.  It doesn’t matter what happens now, because they are home, and the story has reached its conclusion. This is the same sense of completion that every human longs to possess eventually in his or her life--to come to the end of the story and know one is home.  Home, in the sense used here, is far more than a physical location. Home is where the dog longs to be, and Otis has truly reached his final destination.

In our examination of this film, we must remember that it is indeed written for children.  The fact that we find powerful social truths embedded in a playful story about a puppy and kitten shows that it serves a purpose beyond entertainment, which is that of instruction.  Few parents would not want the positive qualities Otis possesses to “rub off” on their children.  However, when we more thoroughly examine the concept of “home” as it is expressed in the film, this easy-going picaresque tale changes its tone to one that is far more somber.

For the majority of the film, Otis is searching for Milo so they may eventually return home together.  The story ends with their arrival home, but this “home” they have reached is a state of mind, not the farm where they were born.  This seems at odds with the classic dog story.  Lassie stories, for example, almost always end with Lassie and/or Timmy finally returning to their house and family.  “Home,” in such stories, is anchored to a physical location where everything is always constant.  Mom is always home, and she always has a meal prepared when you return.  This is an accurate representation of the society that produced such stories--America, circa 1950.

Our society has changed immensely since the time of Lassie and her kind, and our dog fiction has changed in a parallel manner.  In “Milo and Otis,” “home” is a dynamic concept.  “Home” is merely the state of mind that one associates with the word.  This film, released in 1989, more closely identifies with children of today than does the story of Lassie.  In a society that is highly mobile, transient, and filled with divorce, the plasticity of the concept of “home” is integral to the development of young minds.  Consider a child that spends time separately with each of his divorced parents in different locations.  If he is brought up watching Lassie, he will want to attach a physical location to his understanding of his home.  Additionally, there is no room in Lassie’s home for divorce, which further increases the child’s confusion.  However, the story of Milo and Otis’ adventures instructs children to create their own abstract home, as a state of mind unique to every individual.  Thus a child may have a “home” devoid of a location, of a mother, or of a father.  The intention of this lesson is unquestionably to enable children from broken homes or other “non-traditional” families to develop an innate sense of home, disassociated from the standard “Lassie” expectations.

Examined using Garber’s heuristic, “The Adventures of Milo and Otis,” like most dog fiction, may be taken as far more than a simple children’s story.  The ideas presented may be beneficial to many children growing up today, but they should also serve as a sad cry out to the general populace.  The responsibility of establishing a “home” has essentially been transferred from the parent to the child, and the traditional home, and consequently family, has all but disappeared in our society.  This shift undermines the roles of the parents, and forces the child to take on adult responsibilities at a premature age.  We live in an on-the-go day and age where nothing seems to remain constant for any time at all, and with this lack of continuity we have lost a great deal of what was once an integral part of society.  The thought of a child ascribing to a “home” devoid of anything infallible is not a pleasant one.  If every parent would spare a moment in their busy, fast-paced lives to consider the impact of the dissolution of the traditional home upon our children, we might not need films such as “Milo and Otis” to instruct our children to dissociate home from the world around them.