The relationship between a man and his dog is an incredibly complicated one. The struggle to define the roles in these relationships is constant; are the two truly companions, equal in their dependance on one another, or is the dog to be subservient to a “master” who provides shelter and sustenance? Can one’s relationship with a pet ever truly replace intimate human interactions?
The animated feature My Dog Tulip, directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger and screening at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, explores one of these human/canine relationships. This true story is adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s memoir of the same name.
Joe, a single middle-aged man living in England during the 1940s, acquires an Alsatian named Tulip. Tulip’s behavior is erratic and, at times, destructive, earning her few friends. Joe, however, becomes attached to Tulip and she becomes his ideal soulmate. He dedicates the next fourteen years to making Tulip’s life as ideal as possible. He doesn’t always succeed, but his motives are pure and his effort admirable.
My Dog Tulip is exquisitely animated, using over 800,000 hand-drawn images. Animator Paul Fierlinger uses a software program that transfers pen strokes on a touchpad to his computer, creating the film’s individual frames. A practice that results in the use of no paper. His images resemble hasty sketches, unrefined, but fantastically organic. His wife, Sandra Fierlinger, then takes his now-computerized images and adds color using a watercolor-like palate, resulting in a lush, but muted feel. These pictures are the film’s greatest strength.
The story of Joe and Tulip is told entirely through Joe’s (voiced by Christopher Plummer) own first-person narration. The film has very little dialogue, aside from an occasional bark from Tulip. The constant voiceover tells an interesting story and the language used is poetic, but it pulls the viewer away from the Fierlingers’ beautiful animation and quickly becomes grating. Film is a visual medium; the story is to be told through pictures, not words. As the film rolls on, it becomes apparent that the script is almost unchanged from it’s source material; it is as if Plummer is simply reading from the pages of Ackerley’s memoir, resulting in My Dog Tulip feeling like an extended episode of Reading Rainbow.
Further, the final film could have used a bit more time in the cutting room. At only 82 minutes, it should have been a breeze to get through, but by it’s third act, felt like a chore. Scenes repeat themselves, causing a stall in pacing and an overall disconnect from the story. Why pay attention now when I saw a similar scene five minutes ago?
While the film’s execution is flawed, it still tells a touching story and does so effectively. Audiences are convinced that Joe truly did love his dog, and his dedication to her is enough to melt the heart of any dog owner. It’s just a shame that Fierlinger, who is also the film’s screenwriter, allowed the words of the narration overwhelm the power of his animation.
The San Francisco International Film Festival takes place this year from April 22 to May 6.
My Dog Tulip screens Sunday April 25 at 6:00pm, Tuesday April 27 at 4:15pm & Saturday May 1 at 8:50pm. Please visit the official SFIFF website for more information on specific screenings.