‘My Dog Tulip’ Defies the Cute Doggy Genre

Before proceeding with an actual review of My Dog Tulip, it seems only appropriate to acknowledge and share the concerns many may have about an animated dog movie. Believe me I know, and fully sympathize with the natural reaction to run far, far away from any such film. Whether it’s the manufactured blandness of Lady and the Tramp or the reconstituted drivel of Marley & Me, this film genre elicits very vocal and sharply divided opinions. Regardless of your views one must ask, How many more uplifting tales of love and redemption between man and his mutt can be told before this breed of story is retired?

A saturated market (both in print and celluloid) has, thus far, failed to exhaust the supply of such stories. The problem with such excess is not just the glut of similarity but also, and more importantly, the loss of original work washed away by the flood. A perfect example is My Dog Tulip, a quiet and understated film that was largely ignored during its theatrical run in 2011.

My Dog Tulip may be an animated feature about the love and adventurous mishaps between a man and his dog, but it is by no means a cute little children’s movie. In fact, this is very much a film for adults. Not so much for the intricate beauty of its hand-drawn animation or its contemplative tone and quiet observations on love, loneliness and loss. Rather, because My Dog Tulip is unabashedly and proudly scatological. It’s not a stretch to call this a dirty movie as Tulip’s excretory habits and reproductive needs are enthusiastically observed, thoroughly detailed and lovingly obsessed over by her owner.

North American audiences will most likely be unfamiliar with J.R. Ackerley (1896–1967). For decades Ackerley was editor of the BBC’s literary journal, The Listener, and published several well-regarded books and memoirs. Hailed as a major literary figure of mid-20th century England, he was in many ways the quintessential British man of letters; proper, quiet and reserved. Though openly gay (when homosexuality was still a criminal offense). Ackerley lived alone and seemed resigned to never finding his “ideal” friend.

My Dog Tulip is directly inspired by Ackerley’s 1956 memoir chronicling his15-year relationship with Queenie, his German Shepherd (renamed Tulip for the book). Ackerley was well past middle age and comfortable in his solitary ways when he acquired Queenie. As he notes in his memoir, “Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs.” The decision to take on a pet seems less natural and more mystifying to Ackerley but he is surprisingly drawn to this weird, difficult, demanding and loving creature. Their relationship proved to be the most consuming and rewarding companionship of J.R. Ackerley’s life.

My Dog Tulip is a pleasant movie filled with many moments of whimsy, delight, and thoughtful emotion. The film respects the internal monologue of the memoir and establishes its narrative through a series of episodic sketches between Ackerley and Tulip. The voice-over narration is taken directly from Ackerley’s memoir and read over the action of the film’s animation. There’s actually very little dialogue in My Dog Tulip, but a few characters are brought to life through the talents of Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. J.R. Ackerley is voiced by the venerable Christopher Plummer who narrates the film with command and touching inflections of expression, which captures the subtleties of his character’s distinct personality.

My Dog Tulip fails, however, to move beyond the wit of its source and the splendor of its animation. As marvelous as the film looks, the story never develops into a cinematic experience. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and admire, but it never manages to fully engage the audience. The film’s dramatic momentum relies solely on the lifted narration of Ackerley’s memoir. All that J.R. Ackerley could write and express on the page – understated emotions of loneliness, dry English humor, tender observations of longing – cannot, unfortunately be directly transliterated and animated to fit the wide screen.

The DVD’s supplemental features turn out to be the most engaging and rewarding aspects of My Dog Tulip. Filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger are exceptional artists – sincere, humble and monastically devoted to their craft. The disc includes Making Tulip, an in-depth featurette on the creative process of bringing J.R. Ackerley’s memoir to the screen. We visit the filmmakers in the unassuming suburban Pennsylvania house that serves as both their studio and their home.

My Dog Tulip was literally a labor of love for the filmmakers as they spent years developing the project. The film is compromised of nearly 60,000 drawings. Utilizing TVPaint, a special paperless computer program, each shot of the movie was meticulously hand-drawn by Paul Fierlinger and then painted by his wife, Sandra. Their animation is remarkable and meticulously crafted, but what truly distinguishes their work is the sincere infusion of love and enthusiasm they have for the story and its characters.

The other features on the DVD include trailers, downloadable material, examples of the Fierlinger’s past work and a sneak preview of their latest project, Slocum at Sea with Himself.

My Dog Tulip, like the original animal of J.R. Ackerley’s inspiration, is a most unusual creature. It’s a touching, strange, frustrating, charming and admirable little film. While perhaps not an unqualified success, My Dog Tulip should be rightly noted for its artistry, expressive sophistication and intelligent respect for the emotional bonds that exist between humans and their pets.

RATING 6 / 10