"My Dog Tulip" celebrates and transcends animation

Set in postwar Britain, "My Dog Tulip" is directed by Wynnewood's Paul and Sandra Fierlinger and features the voice of Christopher Plummer.
Set in postwar Britain, "My Dog Tulip" is directed by Wynnewood's Paul and Sandra Fierlinger and features the voice of Christopher Plummer.
Posted: October 01, 2010

OK, first off, anyone who shares his or her life with a dog, or has done so in the past, go see My Dog Tulip.

Second off, anyone with a passion for animation, and an appreciation of how "cartooning" can frequently take the viewer to emotional and psychological realms with greater facility than live action, go see My Dog Tulip.

Thirdly, fans of J.R. Ackerley, the British editor and man of letters whose memoir about his decade-plus relationship with a German shepherd is the matter at hand . . . well, go see My Dog Tulip.

Adapted with painstaking care - and inspiration - by Wynnewood-based animators Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, My Dog Tulip is the sublime and amusing tale of a cranky English intellectual who finds his "ideal friend" in the form of an Alsatian bitch. Rescued from the clutches of an unseemly clan when she was just out of puppyhood, Tulip spent the rest of her canine years in the company of Joe Ackerley, a man who was never far from his typewriter, his notebook, his diary.

My Dog Tulip is narrated, as it were, by Ackerley himself; Paul Fierlinger has cherrypicked passages from the book, and Christopher Plummer brings the writing alive with sweet but sardonic inflection (sounding a bit like James Mason in the process).

The setting is a postwar Britain of double-decker London buses, steam-spouting trains, tiny shops, and country cottages. The backgrounds (by Sandra Fierlinger) have a painterly aspect, and the characters, both human and animal, possess a loose, hand-drawn quality that's at once intimate and insightful. (The film was produced over 21/2 years, using a "paperless" hand-drawn animation tool called TVPaint.)

Ackerley, often addressing the audience, moves from the serious to the absurd, from cutting social commentary to personal confession, as he muses about the "uncritical devotion" a dog is capable of, and then stoops to pick up feces, or wipe the floor clean of his pet's urine.

His epic efforts to mate Tulip, and the cycles of fertility that attract the attention of every male dog in a wide radius, from tiny terrier to giant mutt, make up a goodly portion of the tale.

"Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs" is the characteristically wry and caustic observation that begins Ackerley's yarn, and the Fierlingers maintain a similarly droll, but ultimately heartfelt tone throughout. The colors are vivid, the drawing style winningly playful and full of rich detail. Quirky fantasy sequences are rendered as doodles on lined notepad paper, with Tulip and her doggy brethren suddenly gone all anthropomorphic on us.

My Dog Tulip, which also boasts the voice work of Isabella Rossellini and the late Lynn Redgrave, is probably not a cartoon for younger children. The awkward, aggressive couplings of male and female pooches and the pooping and peeing are one thing, but the wisecracking and just-plain-wise musings of memoirist Ackerley are another: adult, pithy, poignant.

This is not the Disney man-and-his-dog treatment. But like the best of Disney's animated films down through the years, the Fierlingers' cartoon celebrates its medium and transcends it. There's great storytelling here.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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