Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Theaters: "My Dog Tulip"

There’s so much of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip that is so lovely and memorable, I’d like to just call it a treat and be done with it. But it’s an oddly misshapen picture that shambles along agreeably for a good chunk of its running time, only to take an odd left turn in its third act that throws off the equilibrium of the entire enterprise. It is based on a memoir by British writer J. R. Ackerly, and while it has some lovely passages, the filmmakers might have been wise to second-guess their absolute fidelity to the source material.

The film opens with a wonderful on-screen quote from the author: “Unable to love each other, the English turn instinctively to dogs.” The narration (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is taken from the book, in which Ackerly recalls how he came to own the title character, a German shepherd (or Alsatian, as they call them across the pond) who became the focal point of his quiet life. There’s not much in the way of plot; the story unfolds with the loose stream-of-consciousness of a late-night anecdote, shared over a pint at the pub. There are dashes of eccentric British humor, little jokes on the edges of the frames, and a boost of personality courtesy of the late Lynn Redgrave (providing comic friction as Ackerley’s prickly sister).

The Fierlingers use the TVPaint program to give the film a distinctively hand-drawn style, full of squiggly lines, half-finished compositions, and occasional pencil-only sketches and other experiments. There’s a slight clunkiness to the movement, but that somehow makes it strangely mesmerizing. The character work of big, sweet Tulip, curled up in a chair, is particularly good; they give the dog an intangibly soulful quality, and do it without the easy fix of merely affixing some human characteristics.

The picture coasts along for an hour or so, primarily on the pleasantness of the storytelling, the lovely aesthetics of the unconventional animation, and the wonderfully melodious quality of Plummer’s voice. But, subject notwithstanding, it isn’t a “kids’ movie”—there are occasional profanities and scatological detours throughout. And parents will certainly want to hustle the kiddies before the third act, wherein the film becomes oddly obsessed with the intricacies of breeding Tulip, who has gone into heat.

Not to sound childish, but this material is just a little too frank for a light entertainment—it’s slightly icky and seemingly endless. Some of it is funny, and some of it is daring, but we reach a point where we’ve simply heard and seen too much. Charming visuals and an agreeable perspective go a long way, but there’s only so much I want to know about Tulip’s vaginal folds.

The film makes a partial recovery in the sweet and eloquent closing passages, which pinpoint some essential truths about our attachments to our pets. There, and in some of its other, lighter scenes, My Dog Tulip is a sweet, low-key little charmer. Shame about that third act, though.

"My Dog Tulip" opens Wednesday, September 1st in limited release.

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