When he was over the age of fifty, writer J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer) at last found the companionship he had been seeking all those years when he rescued an Alsatian dog from neglectful owners. For the first eighteen months of her life, Tulip was largely kept tied up in their yard, not getting enough exercise and certainly not getting the training she needed to get by in the world: Ackerley observed that Alsatians could likely be unruly at the best of times, so he had his work cut out for him when he saved Tulip and offered her a new start...
Although Ackerley's book was celebrated for its depiction of how humans interact with their canine pets as one of the finest of its kind ever written, watching this film adaptation you may well wonder if it was not designed to appeal dog haters as much as it was dog lovers. That was because the story was not afraid to admit that pooches could be just as much trouble to keep as they were faithful friends, and some of their activities as depicted here were frankly revolting. As brought to the screen by husband and wife team Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Fierlinger, they did not skimp on unpleasant detail.
Paul was actually in his seventies when he made this, a rare feature in a career made up of shorts and animated inserts to other works, but although there's a slightly musty charm about it, My Dog Tulip could easily have been made by a man a fraction of his age such was the sure hand on its style that kept it interesting. What this was not by any means a Disney version of animal relationships; if anything the Fierlingers went out of their way to make this as far from that anthropomorphism as they possibly could, so there was no hint of Tulip suddenly beginning to talk, yet neither was there his owner conducting imaginary conversations with her.
You would not get Lady and the Tramp eating vomit or shitting on the floor, that's for sure, but this was what you saw Tulip doing here in a successful effort to sustain her essential canine character, the implication being that while owners and pets had a connection based on love and mutual need, they could never quite connect intellectually, leaving their regard for each other on an alien level no matter how much they thought they knew one another. Yes, they could communicate basically, but a human couldn't understand the appeal of pissing on lampposts just as the dog could see no point in reading.
As for J.R., or Joe as the others call him, Plummer guided us through his thoughts in near-continuous voiceover, and the idea of him as a great British eccentric was what powered a story which could have been mundane in the extreme. Also appearing in voice form were Isabella Rossellini, as a vet who is able to tame the rowdy Tulip enough to tend to her innoculations, and in her final role Lynn Redgrave as Joe's sister who tries to tempt the dog away from him, only Tulip is too loyal. Much of the latter half was taken up with Joe's attempts to get his pet pregnant, a baffling endeavour when you later find out he had no intention of keeping the pups and indeed planned to drown them when they were born. Rest assured he cannot bring himself to do so, but at times the narrator is just as fundamentally a puzzle as what brings people and their pets together, according to this at any rate. Highly idiosyncratic, at times disgusting, at others very funny, this wasn't quite like any other animal film. Music by John Avarese.