REVIEW: My Dog Tulip Nears Animation Perfection
J.R. Ackerley's slim, beautifully observed memoir My Dog Tulip is often called one of the finest works about a dog ever written, though Truman Capote came closer when he called it "One of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world." Those who love the book might have reason to be wary of an animated adaptation of it. But Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip -- which opens in Los Angeles this Friday, with other cities to follow -- is a double rarity: An adaptation that wholly and faithfully captures the spirit and mood of the book it's based on, and an example of computer animation -- the 2-D sort -- that shows the human touch in every frame.
Ackerley, who worked for years as the literary editor of a magazine published by the BBC, The Listener, wrote My Dog Tulip in 1956; it's the story of the dog he lived with and loved for many years (in real life, her name was Queenie), a loyal companion who loved him without reservation -- and yet who, he learned, had strong ideas about her own dog-identity that resisted being shaped or sentimentalized by humans.
This animated version hews closely to the story as Ackerley tells it (though in adapting it, Paul Fierlinger draws a line here and there from other Ackerley writings as well). Christopher Plummer is the voice of Ackerley, a man who was already well into middle age when Queenie/Tulip entered his life; he's drawn as a good-natured but thoughtful stretch of a man given to tweedy caps and somber, mushroom-toned overcoats and flannel trousers -- though of course, his sartorial choices can be attributed to the fact that he's both a literary sort and English.
There is something of a plot to the story our narrator is telling -- which I'll get to later -- but for the most part, My Dog Tulip, like the book it's based on, is simply a series of observations, a recounting of how Ackerley came to know and love Tulip's dog nature, even when it confounded or annoyed him. Tulip -- an Alsatian, or what we usually call a German Shepherd in the United States -- is a grayish-brown creature with a bold black stripe down her back, and although we rarely see her face in close-up, her body language suggests equal parts wisdom, grace and silliness. (As the Fierlingers have depicted her, she bears a strong resemblance to the artful sketches that Ackerley himself made of Queenie; you can find examples of them in Peter Parker's 1989 biography Ackerley.) While her master makes various astute and eloquent observations about her and her character, she might be trotting off merrily into a stand of trees to savor whatever glorious smells might be lurking there, or lifting a leg daintily to make her mark on a fence post, or regurgitating a bit of this-or-that she might have eaten.
Ackerley describes every element of Tulip's sterling character, as well as many of her bodily functions. He identifies the two types of urination in which Tulip engages: necessity and social. (Her expression while executing the latter is, he says, "businesslike, as if she's writing a check.") Ackerley wants total happiness for Tulip, and thus decides he'd like to find her a "husband." He tries to mate her with various hand-picked suitors, to no avail -- Tulip will have none of them, but must, as Ackerley wryly accepts, end up making her own choice. He comes to learn what all astute pet "owners" must: That our lives can be so intertwined with those of animals that they become a part of us, and vice-versa -- and yet, even though we can impress upon them certain rules of behavior or decorum, in the end their minds are as mysterious as ours are.
I can't remember the last time I saw animation as beautiful as what the Fierlingers have achieved here. Paul Fierlinger made the drawings using a French software program called TVPaint, in which the images are drawn on a digital tablet with a digital stylus. Sandra Fierlinger, his wife, filled in the drawings' gorgeously soft-toned, smudgy colors, which read like a euphoric visual essay on the English seasons -- autumnal browns and golds, sparkling wintry grays, and the clear, deep greens of spring and summer. The narrative is dotted with interludes -- many of them delicately hilarious -- that consist of rough sketches, often made on lined paper, of Tulip acting out whatever behavior Ackerley is describing. In these sequences, she's often wearing a dress to underscore her femininity. It's a touch that does the exact opposite of anthropomorphizing Tulip: Instead, it makes her quintessentially doglike behavior comprehensible in human terms -- as comprehensible, that is, as it can ever be.
My Dog Tulip is populated with some notable people-characters: Isabella Rossellini is the voice of the kind, no-nonsense vet who helps Ackerley to understand and accept some of Tulip's more bewildering behavior; Lynn Redgrave (who died shortly after the film was completed) is Ackerley's bossy sister. But the movie's real star has no lines at all, unless you included barks, sighs and the occasional whimper. In the body the Fierlingers have given her on film, Tulip is alternately a blur of action and joy, an inquisitive being of great intelligence and curiosity, a snoozy, snoring bundle in a chair. Occasionally, you might notice her looking into the "camera," but you'll have to forgive her, because she's not a professional actor and doesn't know any better. To call Tulip a cartoon is an insult: She is, beyond a doubt, all dog, and she is as real to us within the frames of this movie as Ackerley made her on the page.