Finely distanced, gentle, nicely observant, the animated feature My Dog Tulip is the spousal team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s adaptation of Londoner J. R. Ackerley’s 1956 autobiographical tribute to his departed Alsatian Queenie, who unexpectedly entered his life and for 16 years took the role of his one perfect friend. Call it his just reward, for Joe Ackerley had rescued Queenie, here, Tulip, from an abusive household. Thus Tulip committed herself to Joe with loyalty and unconditional love.
These first-person accounts of a man with his dog are unsentimental, which will delight many and perhaps perplex others. There are no Disney guideposts about to signal our emotional responses, and much of the material is taken up with nuts-and-bolts issues that command the attention of the first-time pet owner: the motivations behind different urinations and bowel movements, and the social requirement of clean-up on a public street; the suitable arrangement of a sexual partner so that Tulip can experience both the pleasure of sex and maternal fulfillment. This latter aspect, comprising several failed attempts before fortune shines, is hilariously funny, although the film is consistently witty throughout.
Christopher Plummer supplies Joe’s voiceover narration; at first, Plummer is as dreary and theatrical as usual, but his performance does settle down into something reasonably human; in her final role as Ackerley’s sister Nancy, however, Lynn Redgrave remains her cold, atrocious self. A mimic rather than an actress, Redgrave is one for accents and attitudes, but at least this film protects us from seeing her flat, sour face. Isabella Rossellini, briefly, is a heavenly veterinarian.
There are no computer graphics in this film, thank goodness; it is all hand-drawn—and more: just as another film might have a film-within-the-film, this one has drawings-within-the-drawings as Joe creates a visual diary by sketching his cherished companion. Fascinating stuff!
Sure, some of the film is scatalogical; sure, some inquisitive young viewers might question parents about Joe’s life apart from Tulip (although nothing of Ackerley’s sexual orientation is shown). But this is a lovely piece of work, especially for pet-lovers who also have suffered the loss of such a partner as Tulip. Having recently lost my own irreplaceable cat, I found the film soothing, cleansing; I appreciated the ambiguity of Tulip’s fleeting spiritual reappearance after her end. Who can say whether the image is purely wish-fulfillment or, also, abiding presence? Regardless, the Fierlingers’ film is a brave affirmation of life in the shadow of death.
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