LITTLE ROCK Usually this column is reactive — I’m writing about a movie that has just been released to theaters or on DVD. This is the way newspapers operate; we tend to inform readers about what’s new and presumed exciting. But today, I want to write about a movie that’s a couple of years old, but that you probably didn’t get a chance to see because it never played in Arkansas theaters, and because I didn’t review it when it was initially released to home video.
It’s called My Dog Tulip, and it’s available now on DVD, although I came across it when I was playing around with the Hulu Plus app on my iPad. I’d first heard about the movie at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (where I missed it) and it popped up again when it was released in a few markets in 2010. I remember hoping it would open in Arkansas.
It didn’t, and I didn’t see it and neither did many other people. (It made only a little more than $200,000 at the box office.) But a few of my colleagues did, and it popped up on a lot of critics’ year-end “best of” lists. I made a note to myself to track it down and then forgot about it until I chanced upon it a couple of weeks ago.
Now I’m pushing it on everyone. Now I’m pushing it on you. If you have a pulse, you probably should see My Dog Tulip.
Even though it’s an animated movie, it’s not for children, although there’s really nothing that might be construed as offensive about it. It’s simply told from an adult perspective, in the voice of a middle-aged man who has realized he hasn’t much in common with most people, that he’s neither very loving nor very lovable and that things are not likely to change.
It is based on the 1956 memoir of the same name by J.R. Ackerly, a British novelist and longtime editor at the BBC. Ackerly was what people used to call a “confirmed bachelor,” and he lived a fairly open life as a gay man in London at a time when consensual homosexual acts were illegal. By the time the action in the film takes place, “Joe” — whose sexual orientation the movie takes for granted and makes no fuss over — has tired of the promiscuity of his youth. Instead he’s looking for “an ideal friend” with whom he can pass the time.
To this end, he adopts an 18-month-old Alsatian named Tulip from a workingclass family “who loved her in their own way” but kept her penned in a small yard. (Ackerly’s dog, whom he adopted in 1946, was actually named “Queenie,” but when he turned in his manuscript, his editor prevailed upon him to change it because he thought the name might promote sniggering among those who knew the author.)
While it’s not quite clear why Joe, who doesn’t consider himself an animal lover and lacks much practical information on how to care for dogs, takes on the problematic Tulip, once he does, he almost immediately realizes that he has found the one. As he learns about and cares for Tulip, Joe becomes a more patient and scrupulous, better version of himself.
Christopher Plummer provides the narration, and the voice of Joe, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of his wonderful work in a similar role. (Beginners also prominently featured a dog.) Noted animal lover Isabella Rossellini provides the voice of a no-nonsense veterinarian, and the late Lynn Redgrave, in her last role, voices Joe’s nettlesome sister.
(An aside: After Ackerly’s father died, Joe discovered he’d maintained a separate family he’d visited a few times a year. Though the film doesn’t mention it, this sister is from that “second” family.)
Like most animated features, it is a fairly short film, 83 minutes long if you sit through the credits. And like most animated movies, it was made through a painstaking process — it was the first animated feature film ever to be entirely hand-drawn and painted using paperless computer technology.
Paul Fierlinger and his wife, Sandra, made the film in their home near Philadelphia; using a software program called TV Paint, he drew the film onto a digital tablet, using a stylus, while she colorized his sketches. The result is a curiously warm and traditional-looking product — drawn by hand, with the glowing translucency of watercolors — that exists only in the digital realm.
There are several different drawing and animation styles on display in the film — beautifully rendered paintings alternate with simpler “notebook” sketches. In the end, the film was constructed from 58,320 drawings made over three years. (The film includes 116,640 frames, with every frame shot twice, making 12 original frames for each second of projection time.)
Which means, I guess, that given time, patience, talent, acumen and a good story, people can make a wonderful movie in a corner of their den — maybe on an iPad.
I don’t like to use hyperbole, but I genuinely believe My Dog Tulip is one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film. And that you should see it for yourself.
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