As a general rule, movies about dogs are marked by certain tried-and-true conventions – cuddly cuteness, frisky mischief, aching sentimentality and an underlying anthropomorphism that ascribes to canines human traits that allow us to see our best selves in our pets.
It’s a tradition as old as “Old Yeller” and “Lassie Come Home” and as contemporary as “My Dog Skip” and “Marley and Me.” And when the films are animated – a la “Lady and the Tramp” or “Bolt” – the results are usually family-friendly romps with the realities of canine life fantasized and sanitized.
But with “My Dog Tulip,” drawn quirkily from the 1956 memoir of British academic J.R. Ackerley, dog ownership gets a bracing and biting dose of earthiness as it tracks the author’s 15-year relationship with his rambunctious German shepherd (the Alsatian bitch Queenie, renamed Tulip for the book).
Both man and dog had decidedly misanthropic dispositions. Ackerley was a rumpled, cranky, acutely meditative, and openly gay, man of letters who’d long ago given up finding the human companionship he felt so acutely missing in his life. So, as he wryly observes, “unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs.”
Tulip was an unruly canine that Ackerley rescued from dire circumstances, and, as we’re told in Christopher Plummer’s raspy voice-over narration, she was a force of nature destined to dominate her owner’s life with “constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which is in the nature of dogs to offer.”
Set in a postwar London of double-decker buses, chugging trains and quaint shops, the tale is adapted, directed and animated with painterly grace (and a jumpy, angular, idiosyncratic style) by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. The artists compiled nearly 60,000 hand-drawn and colored “paperless” illustrations using a computer program called TVPaint to create a fluid and lovely film that’s as sublime visually as it is verbally.
Ackerley’s words provide the sturdy spine of the story as they meander articulately from the profound to the absurd, as the author offers up pithy bits of social commentary, naked confession and bittersweet wonder – in between rounds of stooping to clean up the piles of poop and puddles of urine that Tulip generates.
In fact, much of the tale focuses on Ackerley’s efforts to contend of Tulip’s natural urges, with her constant ferocious barking and the chaos she causes wherever she goes. Considerable time is devoted to Tulip’s reproductive urgencies as Ackerley offers great clinical detail of what happens when she goes into heat and his efforts to find her a suitable mate.
Not everyone is as enamored as Ackerley with Tulip’s primal behavior, and friends seldom invite the man and his dog back for a second visit. Other humans occasionally intrude on the master-dog idyll – mainly in the form of Ackerley’s pinch-faced sister Nancy (voiced by the late Lynn Redgrave) who deviously curries the pooch’s favor and a wise veterinarian (Isabella Rosselini) who tells the owner, “Tulip is a good girl. You are the trouble. She’s in love with you.”
“My Dog Tulip” might not be an ideal dog movie for everyone. It’s very grown-up and far afield from the sweet, Disney vision of doggie life. But any adult who has ever had a love affair with a loyal canine will identify with the otherwise misanthropic Ackerley’s besotted rhapsodies about his pet and will understand the awe in his voice when he says of her, “it was touching and strange that she should find the world so wonderful.”
- Dennis King
“My Dog Tulip”
3 1/2 stars
Starring: voices of Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rosselini, Lynn Redgrave, Brian Murray
(Language, dogs in heat, copious canine urination and defecation)