Sunday, August 29, 2010

Canine Valentine: My Dog Tulip

For the British, the immediate post-war years were a period of economic recession and national uncertainty. However, for one tweedy man of letters, they were happy times thanks to his ideal companion, a willful but affectionate German shepherd. Despite a relatively slim body of work, J.R. Ackerley’s literary reputation endures almost entirely thanks to his memoir of faithful dog ownership, My Dog Tulip, which has been adapted by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger as an animated feature intended for discerning adults. The first acquisition of the happily re-launched New Yorker Films, Dog (trailer here) opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Though not deliberately abused, Tulip was too much dog for her original harried working class owners. However, a “confirmed bachelor” like Ackerley is perfectly willing to put up with a little barking and the occasional mess on the floor. In return, Tulip loved him with a possessive fervor. Caring for Tulip presents its challenges for the set-in-his-ways gent, the most pressing of which is finding a vet both he and Tulip feel comfortable with. Eventually, they are referred to Dr. Canvenini, who we know will be compassionate since she has the soothing voice of Isabella Rossellini.

With Tulip now receiving better care than most of the English suddenly navigating the National Health Service, Ackerley finds he enjoys her company far more than that of humankind, most definitely including his jealous sister Nancy. It is a love he explains with colorful details as he works on what will surely become his beloved memoir throughout the film.

Dog’s refined visual style has been likened to that of New Yorker magazine cartoons, which is a relatively apt comparison. While deliberately “sketchier” during flashback sequences and such, it conveys a spirit of wit and elegance throughout. Still, do not let the classy look and literary credentials mislead you. The film has a gleefully scatological disposition, displaying a Mehmet Oz-like fascination with the consistency of Tulip’s number two. All of which means Dog is a heck of a lot of fun.

Christopher Plummer’s voice is a perfect fit for Ackerley’s curmudgeonly urbanity, taking audible delight in his sly turns of phrase. John Avarese’s jazz and light classical soundtrack also further heightens the film’s air of sophistication. Yet, while Dog’s gentle pace and episodic structure might sound suitable for children, parents should be cognizant it really was produced with adult viewers in mind (featuring for instance a rather frank subplot involving Ackerley’s attempts to mate Tulip).

Forget about Marley and Me or any other saccharine pet movie. The Fierlingers’ animated take on Ackerley’s canine valentine is a smart and wistful pleasure for discriminating dog and film lovers. Warmly recommended, the droll Dog begins a two week run Wednesday (9/1) at Film Forum, with the filmmakers scheduled to attend the 8:00 screenings opening night and Thursday (9/2).