Paul and Sandra Fierlinger illuminate the very core of J. R. Ackerley's novel about the love between a man and his dog. Of course, the story is merely a reference point, a wink and a nod towards the ‘man's best friend' archetype. The Fierlingers manage to magnify the substance of Ackerley's tale through their impressionistic animation. It's a simple story that gets the gentle nudge it needs to reveal its greater purpose. Probably too subtle for most tastes, the novel's reputation and its unique idea should draw people to cinemas.
Ostensibly the tale of a lonely man and his dog, this film is a poignant yet sharp-eyed view of meaningful relationships. The elderly Ackerley, having conceited defeat in his quest for "the ideal friend," decides to simply settle for companionship. Not your typical dog lover, he nevertheless decides it's the easiest option.
But then he meets Tulip, an emotional being with boundless enthusiasm, and a tendency towards overreaction. Ackerley is so refined and reserved that the relationship seems slightly absurd. He's initially unconvinced that he can make this arrangement work, and so are we.
As a man ruled by intellect, Ackerley simply observes Tulip. Sometimes he is surprised by what he notices but mostly he accepts her behaviour as fact: she has a certain temperament and everything she does extends from it.
Ackerley is in fact completely clear eyed and startlingly honest about Tulip's behaviour and about his own feelings. The use of voiceover animation to guide the story ensures a clear focus. Allowing him to articulate his thoughts in such detail strengthens our sense of the changes occurring within him and between him and Tulip. It is often the tension between what he says and what we see that is most heartening, and incredibly funny as well!
The filmmakers' animation style looks deceptively simple; it is paperless computer technology that provides the soft look of watercolor and pencil drawings; this is used to convey the main narrative arc. But the film takes side trips into the areas of inner thought, feeling and motivation and it's here the animation looks the roughest, seemingly drawn on lined notepad paper, featuring only stick figures and outlines. The linearity of the tale is destroyed to great effect. Ackerely is not going to suddenly become more effusive, nor is his pet going to speak, so this strategy expands our understanding of the depth of their growing relationship.
My Dog Tulip is far from bathetic as it reveals the nature of real love. In a rather unassuming way, this film presents an inglorious picture of this highly prized sensation, complete with wide ranging emotions, big and small, in all their vast contradictions and variations. It's a surprising outcome given the innocuous story but that's even more surprising given the outcome's relevance. The ideal is unattainable but what is real is satisfying enough.
Distributor: New Yorker
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini
Directors/Screenwriters: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger
Producers: Norman Twain, Howard Kaminsky and Frank Pellegrino
Running time: 81 min
Release date: September 1 NY, October 15 SF, October 22 LA