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Film Review

My Dog Tulip

Most pet owners love their animals with a ferocity and passion that only another pet owner can understand. Much has been written about that love. Byron's touching epitaph to his beloved dog included the lines "who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man, without his vices". In America, John Steinbeck's poodle was immortalized in Travels with Charley, and Willie Morris' wonderful My Dog Skip is a classic, but the English probably are the quintessential dog lovers. "Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs". In 1956, J. R. Ackerley, an English writer (1896-1967), wrote My Dog Tulip, about a dog who transformed his life. His memoir has been reprinted, and now has just appeared in an animated film version, by a husband and wife team, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, known for their animated films and commercials. Animated films, all too often a format only for children, can have a power that is at least equal to and sometimes greater than live films. My Dog Tulip is one of those films, and definitely not a children's film.

Ackerley adopted an 18 month old Alsatian (in America, German Shepherds) "bitch" named Tulip, and wrote of his observations about her. She was exuberant, playful, and protective, the first two the opposites of Ackerley. He observed her habits, and wrote in great detail about her world, her exploring, and most unusually, her excretory and sexual behavior. He is fascinated by Tulip's interests: "It seems to me both strange and touching that she should find the world so wonderful". Her interests often included flowers, garbage, other dogs' poop, and all sorts of yucky things. Ackerley is fascinated by Tulip's excretory habits, and describes them in detail. And they are fascinating. He has a hilarious scene of her pooping in front of his neighborhood grocer's store, and his penitential cleanup. He wants Tulip to experience all of life, so decides to breed her. He finds other owners with Alsatians and attempts to breed them, but Tulip is uncooperative and often hostile. One particularly large, handsome fellow is chased into a corner where he is left sulking. Another is simply intimidated and cannot even mount her. But she finally does find love from a most unexpected suitor. The accounts of Tulip's reaction to Ackerley's sister are particularly amusing. My Dog Tulip is wildly eccentric, like no other animated film I've ever seen, but immensely charming with its watercolor-like animated drawings, cleverly punctuated with cartoon figures of a human-like Tulip. Christopher Plummer reads Ackerley's words, and Lynn Redgrave as his sister, both pitch perfect. This was one of her last roles, and the film is dedicated to her. Isabella Rossellini is marvelous as the first veterinarian who understands Tulip: "Tulip is a good girl. The problem is you. She is in love with you". There is a poignant sweetness to this film, but never maudlin, and like Ackerley himself, always restrained.

Ackerley had Tulip for over 15 years, and writes: "She offered me what I had never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer". The Fierlingers' wonderful film is a loving and worthy tribute to both Ackerley and Tulip, and I loved every minute of it. It seemed too short, only 83 minutes, but packs so much into that time. If you love animals, My Dog Tulip is a must see. Just opened at the Clay.

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