The Plague Dogs

August 24, 2011

I usually manage to find a way to avoid going to see full-length animated features. I’m really not sure what it is about the format that holds so little allure for me, but I’ll almost always grab any excuse that will help me steer clear of a 90-minute cartoon.

Perhaps it’s because, although animation methods have improved technically since the days of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the art form does not seem to have grown imaginatively. Snow White still shines as a triumph, and most modern-day animation looks withered next to it.

But an animator named Martin Rosen made a movie a few years ago called Watership Down that was a vibrant rebuke to this sad trend. Seeing his name in the credits of The Plague Dogs made it easier for me to drag myself to this new animated feature.

Like Watership Down, this one is based on a novel by Richard Adams, and has talking animals as its main characters. So I was prepared for a movie where dogs spoke with British accents. Okay.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that The Plague Dogs would be so compelling. It’s not just that the animation is impressive. It is; but the story is startlingly engrossing and uncompromising.

Two dogs at a research laboratory have been undergoing painful tests for some months. One night, they sniff a way out into the English countryside, and delight in their freedom. But they find mere survival quite a struggle, and soon they’re the subject of an intensive search: they may have been exposed to some plague virus at the laboratory.

With the help of an uncharacteristically trustworthy fox, they learn how to scavenge and even kill to survive. The scenes in which they trap and eat sheep are surprisingly graphic.

Indeed, some elements of The Plague Dogs may be disturbing to younger children, especially the harrowing atmosphere of the research center and the accidental death of a hunter caused by one of the dogs.

However, these elements are also what make the film admirable. It is so powerful in large part because it is unflinching. There’s nothing icky or cute about these cartoon characters and situations; the stakes, after all, are life and death, and if a film—even an animated one—is going to deal in those terms, it may as well do it without blinking.

The personalities of the dogs are—pardon the phrase—well-drawn; Snitter, a sharp-witted terrier, is giving to occasional hallucinatory experiences, thanks to the fact that some of his gray matter was lifted out by scientists. Rowf is a skeptical black Labrador who vows not to let the “Whitecoats” take him back alive.

Given that set-up, there is slim chance of the customary happy ending. And The Plague Dogs offers an odd, bold alternative. I won’t say what it is, but I found it strangely moving, and rather courageous—an appropriately offbeat ending for an animated feature made unusual by its quality.

This is the film’s American premiere engagement.

First published in the Herald, December 16, 1983

“May be disturbing for younger children.” Well, I am known for understatement. This is one traumatic movie, and it will be too disturbing for most adults I know. This is from the days when Seattle was a popular market to launch misfit movies, and The Plague Dogs certainly qualifies; a cartoon guaranteed to keep a young audience away—who is this movie for? It was very good, and Martin Rosen went on to make an interesting 1987 live-action picture, Stacking, but I don’t know where he went after that, except for an IMDb listing about a Watership Down TV series. It’s kind of interesting to recall this pre-Little Mermaid moment when feature animation really was in a long period of doldrums, from which it didn’t seem particularly likely the form would recover. Feature animation still interests me less than just about any other kind of moviemaking, but the quality level has gone way, way up.