Early this year I noted how much I was looking forward to the animated adaptation of J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Producer Norman Twain said recently, “The process of making the movie took three years and sometimes felt like grass growing, but it was all worth it.” And after catching it at Film Forum last week, I have to agree. Tulip was delightful, and won’t disappoint fans of the book, animation enthusiasts, or dog lovers.
It’s tempting to lean on the word “charming.” While this is definitely not a children’s film, and it’s not exactly whimsical, it capitalizes on the book’s inherent contradiction—being deeply sweet and at the same time utterly unsentimental—in a truly rewarding way. The animation I love best isn’t just a medium for the fantastic but adds something to storytelling that can’t be accomplished with special effects or even CGI. Really creative animation is the poetry to live action’s prose. And in this sense, Tulip shines.
The animation team, Paula and Sandra Fierlinger, build the tale from several layers of styles. The basic storyline artwork is the most traditionally done, although attractively jittery and offbeat, with gorgeous color throughout. There are sepia-toned reminiscences and sketchbook drawings, presumably Ackerley’s, come to life. And then you have short runs of anthropomorphic fantasies done in sketchy blueline, which are weird and funny and a little kinky: A bar full of sailor dogs each paying their lusty respects to a flirtatious Tulip in heat, who struts and lifts her cartoon skirt to drive them into a frenzy, for example. Each feeds the story and what you end up with isn’t just a dog story; it’s a love story.
I’ve mentioned before that the book (recently reissued by NYRB classics) may not be for all sensibilities, concerned as it is with the view from the other end of the leash and all its attendant effluvia. Tulip the movie manages to soften that factor by virtue of the appealing artwork, and yes, charm. Ackerley’s love for his dog, even in the messiest of events, comes through loud and clear. The soundtrack is good-natured, and the voice-overs—by Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini in the main roles—are perfect (the animators’ Jack Russell, Oscar, supplied some of the barking). The trailer gives an idea of the film’s sweetness, and Jim Gisriel has a goofy, detailed video review up on YouTube. Right now it’s in limited release, but hopefully with some good attention and response Tulip will thrive. It deserves to.