The Witch Proves We Need an Oscar for Best Animal Performance

By  · Published on February 19th, 2016


Where’s the petition to let Black Phillip host Saturday Night Live? Or at least attend the Academy Awards? Oscars so human, right?

Occasionally the Academy does allow animal performers at their big ceremony, like the time Uggie the dog joined everyone on stage when The Artist won Best Picture in 2012 and the time the ’80s and ’90s go-to Alaskan Kodiak Bart the Bear (The Edge, Legends of the Fall) helped present the Oscar for sound effects editing in 1998. Now, with all the raves he’s receiving for his scene-stealing performance in The Witch, I propose that Black Phillip the goat be invited next weekend to appear in some capacity in the telecast of the show.

He can’t be given a special award this year, of course, because The Witch is now technically a 2016 release, but also animals just don’t receive Oscars. That’s been the shame of the Academy since the start. In 1929, Rin Tin Tin actually received the most votes to win the very first Oscar for Best Actor, but he was quickly deemed ineligible by the serious organization and so Emil Jannings was honored instead (which one have you heard of?). Since then, we’ve seen Skippy the dog, Manis the orangutan and Keiko the orca all go unrecognized.

In a year when practical effects will surely go celebrated and yet when Best Picture hopeful The Revenant has a scene-stealing bear that was completely computer-generated, the real animals that contribute a lot to what makes The Witch so great are worth acknowledging. As are their wranglers and trainers (led by Jim Lovisek and William Berloni). And of course as is director Robert Eggers for dealing with them, including the goat that plays Black Phillip, which Eggers says was appropriately stubborn. At least I think only one goat filled the role. The actual animals are not credited in the film.

Given that Academy Awards presenters consist of people promoting new and upcoming movies, why not let that old goat have the spotlight? And why not nominate him in a newly created category next year? It’s too late to honor any animals this year, which is too bad because aside from the CG Revenant bear, there were some notable animal performances in 2015, such as Carlos the dog in Max, Pixie the dog in The Danish Girl and the cat who portrays Lucifer in Cinderella ‐ or was that too much or even all CG, too?

There’s also last year’s Palm Dog winner, Lucky the maltipoo from Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights. Would Bob the dog from The Lobster, who won a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, be eligible or would it have to be in a movie released theatrically in the US last year? The same question applies to the canine from I Am a Soldier, which won a “Palm DogManitarian Award” at the festival. Meanwhile, 2014 winner White God, represented by all of its dogs, was officially released in 2015. But there’s no stand out canine there.

The Palm Dog is worth noting because it’s a rare major award for animal performances in movies these days. And it’s bestowed by one of the world’s most prestigious awards organizations. Yet it’s limited by being only for one kind of animal. The cats from Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t qualified (two years ago, the film’s animal trainer, Dawn Barkan, was highlighted by Variety as one of the year’s “unsung heroes” of the Oscar). And had The Witch played Cannes, neither would the goat have been.

The American Humane Association, which is the organization that tells us if any animals were harmed in the making of a movie, used to have an award for movie performances called the PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), but it was discontinued due to lack of funds in the mid ’80s. Now they have something new called the Pawscars (this year’s is held on March 9th) and it’s not only open to animals with paws, so goats could be contenders. The event is five years old now, and yet you’ve probably never heard of it.


Do animals truly deserve to win Oscars? The Academy recognizes performances by children, who are much less worthy, so I say yes. And while Black Phillip seems like the most obvious choice for such an award right now, we still have many months left to see if any other animals stand out more and/or better. Even now we already have Engles the dog from Hail, Caesar! and with the amount of rumored characters there are in , I will just assume that Krypto will make an appearance.

Here is some of the critical praise for Black Phillip in The Witch:

“Black Phillip will soon become an idolized horror favorite.” ‐ Van City Buzz

“Black Phillip is a frightening dude who catapults to the top of the creepy-animal charts.” ‐ USA Today

“The animals [Eggers] casts are the most demonic nonhuman actors in recent memory.” ‐ Slate

“One of the more powerfully eerie animal presences in recent movie memory.” ‐ L.A. Times

“I’ve never been more scared of a farm animal.” ‐ Bustle

“A new horror icon.” ‐ MovieWeb

“You won’t soon forget him.” ‐ Arrow in the Head

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.