Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have attempted to wrangle, choreograph, and anthropomorphize raccoons in hopes of unlocking their vast entertainment potential. Legend goes that, after Thomas Edison filmed the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant in 1903, he used the same shock techniques to train a raccoon to sing “Camptown Races” on camera. (Note: This legend is oft disputed by historians and discerning persons.) It was the rise of special-effects technology and animation that finally realized that vision. This weekend’s Guardians of the Galaxy takes procyonid dream to Avatar levels. The cybernetic Rocket has the body of a raccoon and the mouth of a New Jersey dad stuck in traffic. In honor of the achievement, we paw through the garbage can of film history’s greatest raccoon performances:
Rascal in Rascal (1969)
Walt Disney Pictures’ adaptation of a Sterling North memoir is basically That Darn Raccoon!. The story of a boy and his wily pet raccoon, the film wowed American audiences with its wildlife circus before fading into obscurity. Surprisingly, Rascal made a bigger impact in Japan, where raccoons were non-indigenous. Araiguma Rasukaru, a 1977 anime series based on North’s book, caused such a stir that Japanese families began importing American raccoons as pets, causing a major shift in Japanese ecosystems.
Liam Neeson as Raccoon in The Nut Job (2014)
This year’s biggest squirrels-versus-raccoons animated comedy isn’t essential viewing, but this footage of Neeson performing his bad-guy lines with all the fury of Kingdom of Heaven is must-watch material.
Kenn Navarro as Lifty and Shifty in Happy Tree Friends
With the anthropomorphized animal movement choking on its own adorableness, writers-animators Aubrey Ankrum, Rhode Montijo, and Kenn Navarro performed cultural CPR with Happy Tree Friends. The trio expanded what The Simpsons once joked about with Itchy & Scratchy, turning the grisly demise of cuddly-wuddly critters into a foundational building block of the YouTube era. As Lifty and Shifty, Happy Tree Friends’ scheming pair, Navarro forged cultural ground by answering the question, “What does it sound like when two raccoons are impaled by sharp objects?”
Michael Rapaport as Joey in Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001)
“When the beaver offers you a fish, you take the fish.” Very few actors could utter that line as a talking raccoon and make it intimidating. Rapaport made heads roll in True Romance, Higher Learning, and FX’s Justified. He directed a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest. He’s the actor you hire when you want someone exuding natural, street-smarts cool. He loses very little of that in the guise of a mafioso raccoon.
Bruce Willis as RJ in Over the Hedge (2006)
Unlike Rapaport, Willis doesn’t naturally click with his 3-D-animated raccoon body. If a wicked gypsy cursed Bruce Willis and turned him into raccoon, he would behave like RJ in Over the Hedge. It’s not really acting. But raccoon fans love it. Scour YouTube and you will find RJ tribute videos aplenty — including the one below that is set to R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest.” People love Willis’s interpretation of Michael Fry and T. Lewis’s original comic-strip character, which the YouTubers definitely read before the movie came out. Definitely.
Walker Boone as Bright Heart Raccoon in Care Bears (1985)
Raccoons get a bad rap for always stirring up trouble. Not Bright Heart, who assisted the Care Bears in escaping a pitch-black cave in the Care Bears movie. All the hugs, right there.
Kevin Miller as Sly Cooper in the Sly Cooper series
Nintendo has Mario, SEGA has Sonic, and Playstation has Sly Cooper, a master burglar and student of the Thievius Raccoonus. The video-game industry’s character mascot demands have produced a number of ill creations best left where time forgot them, but Sly is a rather surprising mash-up. His raccoonism make him natural platformer, his noir-inspired backdrop means he can talk like he’s Bogart. Miller gives it a zest that would rattle cages of Bruce Willis/RJ fans. So far, Sly Cooper’s strange concoction has produced four video games and an upcoming feature film directed by TMNT’s Kevin Munroe. Miller was not asked to reprise his role. Prepare the outrage.
John Kassir as Meeko in Pocahontas (1995)
The silent animal companion is a staple of the Disney Princess brand. But including a raccoon into the mix never made sense until Pocahontas, in which Disney had a lead outdoorsy enough to run with a raccoon. Meeko isn’t historically accurate — true to much of Pocahontas — but his species’ scheming reputation balances out Pocahontas’s perfections. Plus, Kassir does a mean squeak.
Joe Fria as Sparky in Sparky & Mikaela (2008)
Before stepping up his game for the Marvel Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn cut his teeth on raccoon directing in the short-form arena. An original creation for Xbox Live, Sparky & Mikaela paired a female superhero with a powerless raccoon with a heart of gold (and a hard-R vocabulary). Unlike the photorealistic CG Rocket Raccoon, Sparky is a mangy hand puppet, a Sesame Street reject just trying to make it in the world. He’s so sad-puppy adorable, his sexual advances are almost forgivable.