My Dog Tulip -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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TORONTO -- This is not the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar, but it certainly is in the cinematic one. "Marley & Me" and "Hotel for Dogs" celebrated canine follies, then talking dogs enlivened Pixar's cartoon "Up," and now comes "My Dog Tulip," a whimsical animated tale about a middle-aged man and his very unruly, undisciplined Alsatian bitch. This is an adult cartoon where the attractions are a droll and very British commentary by Tulip's owner (voiced by Christopher Plummer) and stylish animation from the husband-and-wife team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.

While a natural for festival exposure, the film is not really family friendly -- too much examination of Tulip's adventures in defecation and sex. Theatrical opportunities appear limited.

The film is based on J.R. Ackerley's memoir, published in 1956, about his 14-year relationship with Tulip, which proved to be the happiest years of his life. In a way, that's a sad commentary on the English writer's inability to sustain human relationships although the film never makes that point.

He certainly takes his dog's side in all issues involving other humans and seems more at ease with Tulip then even with his own sister (voiced by Lynn Redgrave). Indeed Tulip and his sister wage a war one year over who will win his affection. It's not a fair fight.

Of course, human/canine interaction presents limited dramatic opportunities except in exaggerated kiddy cartoons where dogs may assume anthropomorphic characteristics. Since "My Dog Tulip" is an adult cartoon, comic incidents focus on problems incurred by Tulip's defecation, her need to define her territory with urinary markers, her "marriage" to a male dog and then her first litter. It is, at times, a case of too much information.

The narration, presumable lifted liberally from Ackerley's tome, is witty and unsentimental. And Plummer's clipped, measured tone is always reassuring.

The Fierlingers claim this to be the first animated feature ever drawn and painted utilizing paperless computer technology. They say 60,000 drawings went into the final picture. Little wonder it took three years to complete.

Much of the film is drawn in a colorful sketch style, more realistic than exaggerated, where our human protagonist addresses us directly as he relives his life with Tulip. Other times simpler drawings, as in a magazine cartoon, evokes the writer's dreams or visions; black-and-white lines speak of more distant memories; and yellow-pad scribbles take us into a world of fantasy thoughts.

The animators are clearly fond of both main characters. Others, human and canine, don't fare so well. Then again, this is the point of view of a slightly misanthropic author who prefers his typewriter and dog to human company.

While a few get bitten, the film itself lacks real bite. This is a placid memoir, describing fond memories with little dramatic urgency.

Tulip's temperamental nature with others is the chief dramatic issue. When a smart veterinarian (Isabella Rossellini) takes her in hand, even that issue seems to subside. A sexual fantasy about a couple, fellow Alsatian dog owners, represents the film's one venture into animation's wilder possibilities. Would there were more.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Norman Twain Prods.
Sales: Cinemavault
Directors-screenwriters-animators: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger
Voice cast: Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Gerety, Brian Murray
Based on a novel by: J.R. Ackerley
Producers: Norman Twain, Howard Kaminsky, Frank Pellegrino
Music: John Avarese
Editor: Paul Fierlinger
Rated PG, 81 minutes