Historically, movies about dogs belong to one of three species: Live-action tearjerkers (“Old Yeller”), comical escapades with talking animals (“Beverly Hills Chihuahua”) and animated films targeted at kids (“Balto”). In the canon of canine cinema, only a few dog movies have broken the mold.
“The Incredible Journey,” the great 1963 Disney classic on which the later “Homeward Bound” franchise was based, follows two lost dogs and their feline friend as they find their way home, and respects the animals by not giving them voices. “Lady and the Tramp,” although a masterpiece of Disney animation artistry, is really too sophisticated (and too upsetting to young viewers) to be classified as a kiddie flick.
Now, it’s high time to add a third movie to that short list of genre-benders: “My Dog Tulip,” running tomorrow through September 14 at New York City’s Film Forum. It may be animated, but “My Dog Tulip” is strictly for grownups: an unflinching exploration of the overused Facebook phrase “it’s complicated” that probes the love of one man for his dog.
Captivating without being saccharine-sweet or sentimental, the film is one-of-a-kind in yet another way: Comprised of 116,640 frames, it’s the first animated feature to be entirely hand-drawn and painted utilizing paperless computer technology – yet it captures the vintage charm of pencil doodles on a fading, yellow notepad, like the working sketches of a New Yorker cartoonist come to life.
The film is based on the book of the same title by legendary author and editor J.R. “Joe” Ackerley, in whose name the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography is endowed. Literary Editor of the BBC’s magazine “The Listener” from 1935 to 1959 and a close friend of E.M. Forster, Ackerley discovered and nurtured a few young scribes who would later become household names in Forster’s league, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender among them.
A gay icon, Ackerley was openly homosexual at a time – he was a veteran of World War 1 – when that was still unheard-of. He describes spending a lifetime in search of an “Ideal Friend,” looking for love in all the wrong places; he’d pay sailors and guardsmen for sex while out roaming in London’s rougher neighborhoods. It might never have occurred to Ackerley to look for a love interest who was neither male nor human, but fate had other plans for him. “Joe,” E.M. Forster told him, “you must give up looking for gold in coal mines.” One day in 1946 he adopted an 18-month-old female German Shepherd – Ackerley calls her his “Alsatian bitch.” And on that day, the unlucky love-seeker struck gold.
The dog’s name was Queenie, and she would prove to be the great love of Ackerley’s life; the pair enjoyed each other’s constant company for 16 years. Ackerley couldn’t bear to leave his girl alone, so he brought her along whenever he scored an invitation to the countryside. But because Queenie was high-strung and, frankly, poorly behaved – this was long before there was a Dog Whisperer (or, for that matter, a Dogster) to help set matters right – the couple never got invited by the same host twice.
All that time spent alone together with Queenie gave Ackerley the opportunity to write the books that are his lasting literary legacy, including his crowning achievement, My Dog Tulip, published in 1956. This work of non-fiction is a moving, funny, sad, true tale of unconditional love, praised by none other than tough-as-nails Truman Capote as “One of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world.” (The beloved bitch’s name was changed to Tulip because editors at “Commentary,” which excerpted the book, believed the handle “Queenie” would distract readers by inadvertently referencing Ackerley’s homosexuality.)
The book is an undisputed classic of canine literature, but if you haven’t read it or haven’t time to, the masterful screen adaptation by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, husband-and-wife filmmaking team, offers an impressively comprehensive portrait of its complex author that draws on several of his other works, and requires a scant 82 minutes to view – time that flies by, much like time spent with a beloved dog. Among the movie’s many delights is its cast of vocal talents: Christopher Plummer as Ackerley; the late Lynn Redgrave as his sister Nancy; and Isabella Rossellini as a no-nonsense veterinarian.
The adaptation of this important book couldn’t have been placed in more capable or creative hands. The collaborative couple – he draws the pictures; she paints them – are devoted dog lovers who’ve earned a cult following for their 30-minute PBS specials, “Still Life With Animated Dogs” and “A Room Nearby.” The Fierlingers received a phone call that one would think could only be placed in the Twilight Zone: Producers Norman Twain and Howard Kaminsky told them they could make a feature film about anything they wanted as long as it was based on a famous book. And that’s how this film came to be.
The Fierlingers’ own two rescued dogs – a Jack Russell named Oscar and a German Shepherd mix named Gracie – provided plenty of artistic inspiration; many of the animated Tulip’s poses and movements are based on Gracie’s. “If we didn’t have her, we would’ve had to adopt a Shepherd!” Paul says with a laugh.