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My Dog Tulip

[Rating: 3/5]

It’s hard to tell a story about a beloved pet without getting all sentimental and treacly.  I think this is probably because owning a pet is, essentially, a sentimental thing to do; it almost requires that you anthropomorphize.  Almost every pet movie I can think of, from “Old Yeller” to “Marley and Me,” tells a tear-jerking story of a beast whose qualities surpass those of its humans, but that beast must die, and we must cry, and the whole dying thing must take a terribly long time.

“My Dog Tulip” attempts to cut the cords of sentimentality and tell a tale of a dog and its owner without all that sticky mess.  If there ever was a narrator allergic to sentimentality, it’s this one, a middle-aged British bachelor who works for the art department at BBC.  The film is based on the memoir of J.R. Ackerly, and he is voiced by Christopher Plummer, in one of his best performances in years; ironic he’s never on screen.   Ackerly is the perfect rumpled, cranky, slightly misanthropic British bachelor; he seems to think that most people are barely tolerable, their messy and unnecessary emotional displays even less so, and that the world would be a much better place if everyone were just a bit more sensible.

And so it is oddly heartwarming to see him fall in love with a dog, an Alsatian (that’s Brit for German Shepherd) named Tulip. In his very British way, Ackerley, lets us know that he is lonely, and has been most of his life.  He finds human companionship ranging from unsatisfactory to completely unbearable, the last category reserved mostly for members of his own family.  (One wonders if his standards aren’t a bit too high.) But in Tulip, he finds an endlessly devoted companion, and he rewards her with his own devotion, and passionate attention.  The two seem made for each other.

Perhaps he pays a little too much attention to Tulip.  A great deal of “My Dog Tulip” is concerned with the beast’s bodily functions.  We learn what she chooses to urinate upon, and why; Ackerley considers it a great compliment when she deigns to add her output to his own one day.  There’s also more than enough information about the dog in heat, the attention that attracts from other dogs, and Ackerley’s attempts to find her a suitable mate.  Maybe Ackerley really finds these tidbits charming, or maybe he’s consciously reacting to the typical “let me tell you about the adorable thing my puppy did” story by telling stories about poop and piss.

This film is animated in a way that perfectly fits its story and animator; as you might be able to tell form the picture up above, it’s all wrinkly lines and ruffled colors; it looks far more like a cartoon out of the New Yorker than a frame from “Toy Story”.   It evokes its time and place – London in the ’60s – perfectly, with its tiny, tastefully decorated flats, double-decker buses, and corner groceries. Sometimes the animation feels a bit restless, but then, so does the narrator.

My favorite thing about “My Dog Tulip” is that it doesn’t dwell upon the dog’s death.  Of course Tulip dies, and Ackerley is devastated; but it’s handled as an epilogue, not an emotional climax. “The fifteen years when she lived with me were the best of my life,” he says, and that’s it.  No weeping, no moaning, no last weak hand lick as the life slowly fades from her sad, sad eyes.  Because, after all, such things wouldn’t be very British, or very sensible.

I realize, as I write this, that I have adopted (at least in part) the voice of the narrator.  In my book, that means a film, or book, or whatever has been at least partially successful – it’s infected the way I think, write, talk.  There’s a strong, distinctive voice in “My Dog Tulip,” and that’s what sets it apart from every other pet movie, and, really, what makes it worth your time.

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