The intensely personal, mutually possessive devotion between man and man’s best friend gets a thorough probing — often in the most literal sense — in the lovingly hand-crafted animated feature “My Dog Tulip.” From J.R. Ackerley’s droll and tender memoir, husband-and-wife helmers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have spun an equally droll and tender film, albeit one that can feel a tad strained in its intense focus on the mating habits and waste products of its canine heroine. A considerable treat for dog lovers, this charming if not especially kid-friendly toon should find a home in theatrical kennels internationally; ancillary prospects look fetching.
First published in England in 1956, “My Dog Tulip” recounts how Ackerley, a middle-aged bachelor with no particular feeling for dogs, became the owner of an Alsatian bitch; for the next 14 years, she would serve as child, lover and constant companion. The filmmakers have taken pains to preserve the source material’s dryly affectionate tone throughout, not only in their voice casting of Christopher Plummer (who delivers the author’s every witticism to perfection), but also in their deliberately rudimentary 2D animation style, which, in its simple yet rapidly shifting hand-drawn images, provides an almost musical accompaniment to Ackerley’s words.
Unflappably English to the core, the 81-minute picture comprises a series of wryly humorous episodes, mostly concerning Ackerley’s trial-and-error attempts to provide for Tulip’s needs. When she falls ill, dog and master pay troublesome visits to multiple veterinarians, only one of whom (a perhaps too recognizable Isabella Rossellini) turns out to be sensitive and sensible enough for Tulip. Later, Ackerley invites his sister (Lynn Redgrave) to move into his flat, initiating a sibling tug of war for the dog’s loyalty.
But most of the film is given over to a painstaking tour of canine bodily functions, including numerous anecdotes about Tulip’s ill-timed potty breaks and, in the most overextended chapter, Ackerley’s vain attempts to find Tulip a husband. Sketches of Tulip relieving herself on the sidewalk (“businesslike, as though she were signing a check”), or Ackerley clumsily trying to, er, position Tulip and a potential suitor, are admirably unflinching, even rhapsodic; this, the filmmakers seem to be saying, is what it really means to be a dog lover, and it ain’t pretty.
But a certain monotony creeps into these passages as well, especially in comical interludes in which Ackerley envisions Tulip as a biped in a dress. It’s an amusing but needless attempt to anthropomorphize a character whose thoughts, habits and emotions are quite easy to read and identify with in this often uncomfortably moving love story, which fully understands the unique intimacy, jealousy and commitment that characterize the bonds between dogs and their owners.
Per press notes, “My Dog Tulip” is the first feature-length toon entirely drawn and painted by hand via paperless technology, as artists Paul Fierlinger (credited as sole animator) and Sandra Fierlinger (background and image painter) made use of a digital tablet and animation software. The result won’t win any awards for pictorial splendor but is marvelously deft and expressive in its blend of color and monochrome, movement and stasis; a light snowfall sequence proves unexpectedly breathtaking. John Avarese’s music and sound design provide a match for the images that’s never less than ideal.