Review: My Dog Tulip (Fierlinger & Fierlinger, 2009)

Still from the movie My Dog Tulip

And now for a complete change of pace: an adult animated feature about a cranky old man and his beloved but misbehaving dog. My Dog Tulip is an adaptation of the J.R. Ackerley memoir of the same title, published in 1956, an account of the elderly Ackerley’s friendship with his German Shepherd Queenie (referred to in the book and the movie as an Alsatian). (Queenie’s name was changed to Tulip under the suggestion of Ackerley’s editors, who were concerned that the name Queenie might provoke ridicule about Ackerley’s homosexuality.)

I almost hesitate to call this movie an animation. It is illustration in motion. What’s the difference? There is an interpretive quality to illustration that isn’t present in most conventional animations. What I mean is, most animations display the scene as merely a drawn version of reality. On the screen, for example, the characters are riding a bus, and the audience knows that the characters are indeed riding the bus. But an illustration can also render a mood or feeling. In one scene, we see Ackerley in stocks, but viewers understand he is not actually being pilloried; the image symbolizes the guilt or shame Ackerley feels. A visual metaphor, if you will. Poetry.

Parallels to Marley & Me notwithstanding, My Dog Tulip is a beautifully made film. At first it may seem small in scope. After all, what could be more banal than the story of man and his dog? Yes, on one level, the movie can be enjoyed as a tale of quaint friendship, of curiosity in and concern for another being. Ackerley (voice by Christopher Plummer) is unduly attentive to Tulip (bordering on obsessive), writing frankly about her physical needs, from her bowel movements to her being in heat to his attempt to mate her (it seemed to be a time before spaying and neutering was considered the proper thing for most dogs). These topics are discussed amusingly, with medical detachment and detail. The style is quiet and wry and understated and humorous, the way only the British can be.

And yet there is also a melancholy and loneliness that pervades the film. Ackerley is a solitary old man, one might even say embittered. He looks upon the humans he encounters, including his own sister Nancy (Lynn Redgrave), with no small measure of contempt and good old-fashioned snobbery. At one point in his life, in his particular, introverted way, it seems he had searched for an “ideal friend,” but that was a dream that he has long ago given up, a bit painfully perhaps. Then Tulip enters his life. A mere dog, some would think. But it’s not so. She is the ideal friend, and he loves her and suffers for her as one would for any human one cared for. Maybe more.

My Dog Tulip is a quietly satisfying film. Not to be watched when drowsy.