Here’s another entry into the Why Hasn’t Everyone Seen This category. From the director (and novelist) of Watership Down, one of my favorite movies and for me one of the greatest achievements in animation, The Plague Dogs is shamefully forgotten.
It’s depressingly easy to figure out why, once you start watching. This is the most disturbing animated film I’ve ever seen. I’m sure there’s Japanese porn that nothing can touch for weirdness, but what is the market for the brutal torture of talking dogs? The film opens with red titles on a black background, with eerie noises and discordant music gradually taking over the rather saccharine early-80’s song presumably commissioned for the film. The sense of unease is simply achieved, and explodes into downright sickness when the credits end and we are thrust into the middle of an “endurance test” involving a Labrador mix in the process of drowning. To which he has subjected repeatedly in the service of scientific curiosity.
This is not a movie for kids. People say that about Watership Down, but I saw it when I was a kid and I’m okay—it’s disturbing but it works out and kids learn something about death along the way. It’s okay. But there is nothing that makes the opening of this film get better. It only gets worse. The dog, and a fox terrier voiced by John Hurt (Hazel the rabbit in the other film) escape, meet a wily fox named the Todd, and spend the entire 85 minutes of the film trying to survive and getting all too realistically emaciated in the attempt.
The problem with this film is that it’s way too good at what it does to be marketable. The narrative follows the dogs, but the voiceovers from news reports, the lab’s scientists trying to keep the incident hush-hush, the military who’s eventually called in, and local farmers let us in on the aspect of the situation the dogs are incapable of understanding—that this is not about them, and never has been. It’s about the sheep they’ve killed, the fear of the townspeople, the experiments that have been kept secret from the public and risk discovery if these dogs are allowed to live.
The other way in which the film succeeds too terribly well is in the design and animation of the animals. Watership Down is a gorgeous movie, and between the two I have never seen animals so non-invasively anthropomorphized. These are rabbits, or dogs, who happen to talk. In all other ways, they move and act like dogs. There’s a love here for the physicality of these animals, a realism so alien to our Disneyfied notions of the animal world that it makes their struggle all the more poignant—I watched this movie with my Labrador mutt and it was all too easy to see him in Rowf.
On a filmmaking level, this movie shows improvement over the previous in its integration of the characters and backgrounds (sometimes jarringly “layered” looking in Watership…) and its innovating camera movement and angles. My only complaint is that the scene transitions always involved an abrupt fade to black which make me expect commercials.
I’m appalled that I’ve never heard of this movie before. It’s a crime that it’s not acclaimed as a masterpiece. But do not see this movie if you cannot take images of animal cruelty. It’s graphic, and the combination of the “distance” lent by animation (which allows our brains to supply as much detail as we like) and the realism of the character designs is horrifically effective. It reduced my partner and I to a sobbing heap on the couch. And we didn’t even cry when Bambi’s mom died.