This holiday season, the multiplex smells like a manger. Just as puppies and kittens are arriving under Christmas trees, movies with critter characters are arriving in theaters.

Pulling the wagon is “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s battlefield epic about a stalwart stallion conscripted into World War I. The movie opens nationwide today.

The menagerie in the heart-tugging true story “We Bought a Zoo” features more than 70 trained animals, including lions, tigers and Crystal, the capuchin monkey from “The Hangover: Part II.”

Virtual varmints hog the spotlight in the ‘toons “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” and “Puss in Boots.”

True-life traumatized animals are featured in the family drama “Dolphin Tale” (newly released on DVD) and the recent documentaries “Buck” (shortlisted for an Academy Award) and “One Lucky Elephant” (about the pachyderm namesake of St. Louis’ Circus Flora).

But as is often the case, most of this year’s cinematic scene-stealers are dogs.


In the critics’ favorite “The Artist,” the life-saving companion of a down-and-out silent-movie star is a Jack Russell terrier. Another Jack Russell is prominent in the art-house hit “Beginners.”

In the new ‘toon “The Adventures of Tintin,” a fox terrier called Snowy plays the Dr. Watson to a journalistic Sherlock.

In Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” a menacing Doberman hunts for orphans in a Paris train station.

And in the comedy “Young Adult,” the only warm-blooded creature who can tolerate tipsy novelist Charlize Theron is the Pomeranian she keeps in her purse.

The dog named Hummer that plays that role was discovered by director Jason Reitman while it was walking with its owner down a New York street. As Reitman told The New York Times, the dog was perfect for the part because Pomeranians have a permanent smile, implying positive regard for the Theron character.

Dogs have long been movie mainstays because they have expressive faces and are more easily trainable than, say, cats.


Terry, the Cairn terrier who played Toto in “The Wizard of Oz,” was paid more than the Munchkins and appeared in 12 other movies. Uggie, the 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier in “The Artist,” was also featured in the recent movie “Water for Elephants.” Cosmo, the Jack Russell in “Beginners,” was trained by Mathilde de Cagney, who also trained the dog Eddie in the TV series “Frasier.”

Trainers are the unsung heroes of such productions. More than 30 of them worked on “We Bought a Zoo.”

Judge approves Gibson’s divorce from wife of three decades

LOS ANGELES – Mel Gibson’s three-decade marriage is officially over.

A judge Friday finalized the 55-year-old actor-director’s divorce from his wife, Robyn, also 55, who was married to Gibson during both his acting heyday and his more recent public downfall.

The judgment entered by Superior Court Judge Mark Juhas keeps virtually all details of the pair’s split confidential. Neither Gibson nor his ex-wife, whose name is being restored to Robyn Moore, attended Friday’s proceedings.


It does not indicate a date for the former couple’s separation. Robyn Moore did not list a date in her April 2009 divorce filing, although Gibson indicated they had been living apart since 2006.

The former couple have seven children together, but only their 12-year-old son is a minor and subject to a custody agreement.

The Gibsons’ divorce has been more low-key than Gibson’s custody battle with Russian musician Oksana Grigorieva. Gibson agreed in August to pay Grigorieva $750,000 to settle a bitter dispute and split custody of their young daughter.

Ailing singer hospitalized

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Etta James’ longtime manager says the terminally ill blues singer has been hospitalized after experiencing difficulty breathing.

Lupe De Leon said James’ family is with her at a Southern California hospital where she was taken last week.

De Leon, who has been James’ manager for 30 years, said the 73-year-old singer is “in pretty bad shape,” but it remains unknown whether she will be able to be released.

He said James was taken to the hospital Wednesday and was placed on a breathing machine.

James’ doctor recently announced that the “At Last” singer has been diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The Grammy winner and Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame member is also suffering from dementia. She has been receiving mostly at-home care.

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