My Dog Tulip
Messy in a good way
The word “naturally’’ is used at least three times in “My Dog Tulip.’’ That’s a mild irony for a movie that takes up the business of a sad old man in love with his moody German shepherd. It’s also ironic for a work of animation whose design evokes instability and decay. The mirthful conventions of, say, “Lady and the Tramp ’’ or “Bolt’’ do not apply. The film is based on J.R. Ackerley’s book about life with his dog, and the profane nursery rhymes might mystify anyone still carrying a Goofy lunchbox. Even so, the movie, directed by the veteran animator Paul Fierlinger, has a bewitching sense of the foul.
For the most part, the images undulate. They often appear to be melting. That, or they’re streaked or smeared and wholly unruly. Colors disobey their lines, which are slanted, crooked, squiggled, or twisted up, like knotted pipe cleaners. The colors were the province of Fierlinger’s wife, Sandra, and her palette is decidedly industrial — smoky, smoggy, gray, which is perfect for the movie’s setting in postwar England; perfect, too, for the streaks of urine stains, garbage-strewn grass, and dog leavings. Many of the backgrounds look like watercolors that are either drying or dying.
Tulip’s owner, Joe (voiced by Christopher Plummer), is a veteran of the first World War. He hasn’t married — Ackerley was openly gay — and finds that he prefers the company of the dog he’s acquired to sustained human contact. He doesn’t use a leash or, unless forced, clean up after her. Occasionally, though, an urge for connection overtakes him, and he’ll seek or accept an invitation to a friend’s, which, after Tulip causes some form of mayhem, often goes unrepeated.
There’s psycho-domestic disturbance after his sister (Lynn Redgrave) moves in. She’s a gaunt figure with a kabuki mask of a face and begins a battle with her brother for the dog’s attention. Amid explorations of Tulip’s incontinence that lead to various veterinarians — the most tolerant of them speaks with Isabella Rossellini’s voice — the movie devotes a long, concluding passage to Joe’s attempts to mate his dog. “A full life naturally included the pleasures of sex and maternity,’’ says Joe.
The film moves between stark sketches on white notepaper and its more frequently deployed grimmer sensibility. If this isn’t comedy (and it’s not — not really), what is it? A dream, in one sense; soiled, dolorous memories in another. The Fierlingers dream Ackerley’s dreams (or remember his memories) with acute sensitivity. They find ways of expressing Joe’s chagrin (when Tulips chases the cat of an acquaintance, a sidecar motorcycle turns into a torture device) and Tulip’s imagined sexual escapades (upright, in a dress).
Paul Fierlinger has mused on dogs’ divine or, at least, human natures before in “Still Life With Animated Dogs’’ for PBS. The new film exists somewhere between sweet and sad. Joe’s loneliness torments him, but his love for Tulip intensifies a barrier to better human friendships that a leash or, had they existed at the time, a good pooper-scooper might have removed.