My Dog Tulip (New Yorker Films, NR)

Many films have been written about the bonds between man and beast but few are as wise, as witty, or as unflinchingly founded in observation as My Dog Tulip.



I don’t think anything is going to stop the juggernaut that is Toy Story 3 (which as of August had already pulled in over 1 billion dollars in receipts worldwide) from scooping up another Oscar for the Pixar mantelpiece. For the record I found it to be a good rather than great film, well-done and certainly worth your time but also relying heavily on visual and storytelling conventions established in the first two films of the franchise. The fact that Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both predate the establishment of Best Animated Feature Film as an Oscar category lends further strength to my expectation that Toy Story 3 will win that honor, in part as a sort of career award for the franchise.

So I don’t see an Oscar in the future for My Dog Tulip, but I do recommend it if you have any interest in animation, dogs, British men of letters or just good storytelling for adults. It’s based on the 1956 memoir of the same name by J.R. Ackerley, which was described by Christopher Isherwood as “one of the greatest masterpieces of animal literature,” and by Truman Capote as “one of the greatest books written by anybody in the world.” I mention these encomiums because My Dog Tulip retains the feel of a work of literature (and I mean that as a high compliment) in its animated form.

Ackerley was a successful writer and editor, “quite over 50” and without significant human entanglements when he adopted Tulip, an 18-month-old Alsatian (German Shepherd) bitch. Much to his surprise he finds himself falling in love with this imperfect and often troublesome animal, confiding that Tulip “offered me what I had never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion.”

Many films have been written about the bonds between man and beast but few are as wise, as witty, or as unflinchingly founded in observation as My Dog Tulip. Ackerley’s tone is well expressed in a quotation that appears early in the film: “Unable to love each other, the English naturally turn to dogs.”

It’s worth mentioning, although it’s barely hinted at in the film, that Ackerley was gay at a time when sexual activity between men was a criminal offense in Britain. Several high profile convictions in the early 1950s, including that of the war hero Alan Turing, demonstrated to gay Britons the dangers of acting on their sexual preference, and if Ackerley had given up on the prospects of a satisfying human relationship the social climate in which he lived may have played some part in that decision.

Tulip is not heroic nor even particularly well-behaved but to his credit Ackerley loves her all the more for it, letting her be a dog rather than some kind of imagined canine plaster saint. Neither does he make himself into a heroic figure—he’s something of a curmudgeon, eccentric and set in his ways and hardly a candidate for a lifetime membership to PETA. The imperfections of both partners, however, are part of the charm of the story, and some of Ackerley’s behavior and attitudes as related in this film need to be interpreted in the context of the 1950s.

My Dog Tulip is told primary through narration, with Christopher Plummer in the role of Ackerley. Brief dialogue scenes feature, among others, the voices of Isabella Rossellini as a sympathetic veterinarian, the late Lynn Redgrave (to whom the film is dedicated) as Ackerley’s sister (and his rival for Tulip’s affections) and Euan Morton as a cyclist.

The animation for My Dog Tulip was created by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, who bypassed both paper and celluloid by working directly on an electronic tablet with the program TVPaint. The film consists of almost 60,000 drawings in several styles which match the various tones of the story, from fairly realistic painted drawings for present-tense narration to scribbles on a yellow pad for Ackerley’s fantasy thoughts. The Fierlingers capture perfectly the tone of Ackerley’s story and their art, while sometimes whimsical, is never fussy or sentimental. | Sarah Boslaugh

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