A beautifully illustrated love letter to dogs and the people who own them, My Dog Tulip is an adaptation of J. R. Ackerley’s famed 1956 memoir about how his life changed after he rescued an 18-month-old German shepherd from abuse. Written and directed by the husband-wife team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, who employ different sorts of animation (watercolors, pencil sketches and crude drawings, all hand drawn) to wondrous effect, the film is narrated by J.R. (voiced by Christopher Plummer), a lonely man in his 50s who has given up on finding the ideal friend — someone who could provide “good companionship and intellectual stimulation” — and pins his hopes on his new canine pal instead.
At first, Tulip (originally named Queenie in the book) is a handful, like many formerly abused dogs, prone to bouts of cheerful, rambunctious destruction, incessant barking and restless, unmanageable energy. Tulip is so boisterous that J.R. goes through three veterinarians before he finds one who will vaccinate her. The doctor (Isabella Rossellini) also gives J.R. a critical piece of advice: “Tulip is a good girl. You are the trouble.” Once J. R. understands that Tulip is in love with him, the way all dogs fall in love with their masters, her behavior becomes easier to manage, even though her vivacious temperament and bowel movements remain unpredictable (the movie finds a lot of humor in the ordeal all dog-owning city dwellers face in curbing their pets).
My Dog Tulip doesn’t have much of a plot, other than J. R.’s eventual decision to find Tulip a mate so she can breed. But she turns out to be quite a picky bitch, even when she’s in heat, and has no apparent desire to fulfill the destiny her owner has chosen — a depiction of the way in which humans often project their needs and desires onto their pets, using them as surrogates to accomplish things they never achieved.
Despite the fact that the movie is a cartoon about a kid-friendly subject, My Dog Tulip isn’t suitable for young children because of its frank (if comical) depiction of doggie sex and pleasantly meandering pace. Like the book that inspired it, the film is more of a reflection on a dog owner’s life and how the four-legged creatures manage to change our view of reality. When J. R. starts taking Tulip out for walks, he’s surprised by her constant curiosity: “It seems to me both touching and strange that she should find the world so wonderful.” Unlike most movies in the genre, My Dog Tulip avoids any sort of sentimentality or emotional manipulation, even when dealing with Tulip’s inevitable death. Instead, it is a dryly witty, keenly observant celebration of life — one that’s better lived and enjoyed, no matter one’s circumstances otherwise, with a dog or two around the house.
Voices: Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini.
Directors: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger.
Screenwriter: Paul Fierlinger. Based on the book by J. R. Ackerley.
Producers: Norman Twain, Howard Kaminsky, Frank Pellegrino.
A New Yorker Films studios release. Running time: 82 minutes. Mild vulgar language, brief depictions of canine sex, adult themes. Opens Friday Feb. 4 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.