As a lover of dogs, stop-motion animation, animation with complex adult themes in general, and about half of Wes Anderson’s filmography, I’m looking forward to checking out the director’s latest, Isle of Dogs. As artistically significant and unique as Anderson’s work is, even his staunchest defenders would agree that he tends to repeat very similar themes, styles and narrative patterns, to a point where he pretty much has created his own indie sub-genre. For a clever and affectionately humorous breakdown of those patterns, have a look at this Wes Anderson Honest Trailer.
Isle of Dogs isn’t Anderson’s first foray into snarky anthropomorphic stop-motion animals. (See Fantastic Mr. Fox.) Nor is Isle of Dogs the first PG-13-rated animated talking dog movie with adult themes featuring independent-minded canine characters out there. That honor goes to the underappreciated masterpiece, The Plague Dogs. Released in 1982 with little to no fanfare, the film was a major box-office failure and was forgotten for a while, only to be resurrected recently as a cult favorite by audiences who appreciate it as a unique and original vision in animated film history.
The Plague Dogs was based on Richard Adams’ novel and directed by Martin Rosen. For those Gen-Xers and early Millennials traumatized by Watership Down as children, a seemingly cute animated classic about a group of cuddly bunnies that turns into a blood-and-death-filled examination of the inherent moral indifference of nature, these names should be familiar. Yes, The Plague Dogs is by the same writer and the same director, and its relentlessly brutal and shockingly realistic approach to the animal world makes Watership Down look exactly like the cuddly bunny movie your five-year-old self thought it was when your badly informed parent rented the VHS tape.
Supported by a mesmerizing watercolor-style animation that captures the somewhat drab but undeniably soothing nature of Northern England, Adams and Rosen use the plot of two dogs running away from an abusive medical animal testing facility in search of freedom to examine complex adult themes with unbridled passion. Those themes include the fallacy of unhinged animal cruelty even in the service of research, how being put in a desperate situation can turn us into wild cornered animals who are prone to unspeakable acts that go against even our mostly benign natural disposition, and most importantly, the significance of being able to take fate into one’s own hands, no matter how inevitably tragic that fate might be. You know, standard animated dog movie stuff.
Rosen opens his film with a clear signal that it’s not for kids: We watch helplessly as Rowf (Christopher Benjamin) is drowned to the brink of death in an animal research lab called Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental. If you’d like a clear shortcut to how much Adams despised animal testing, turn the first letters of that lab name into an acronym and say it out loud. Barely alive after the test, Rowf has no love for humankind. Being drowned two times a day by human hands will do that to you. His cellmate, Snitter (John Hurt), on the other hand, knows of humans who are not monsters, and still holds hope that he will one day become the pet of one of them. As opposed to Rowf, who has never known an existence outside the lab, Snitter was once the pet of a loving elderly man, and was later sold to the research facility after his owner’s death. The ongoing moral back-and-forth between Rowf and Snitter during The Plague Dogs explores the tension between Rowf’s pessimistic outlook concerning humanity’s cruel relationship to animals and Snitter’s hopeful disposition that a peaceful and kind co-existence is possible. Of course Snitter is proven wrong many times during the course of the story, but Rowf is also in store for a couple of unexpected surprises along the way.
After the two friends escape the lab, they struggle to make their way to freedom. Snitter hopes to one day be adopted by another human, while Rowf doesn’t want any part of them, and desires to live as a wild animal. However, their domestic nature proves a major roadblock to their survival, as they are forced to find new and increasingly violent ways to keep from starving and freezing to death. Along the way, a fox simply named The Tod (James Bolam) trains them to act like a wild animal. The Tod is a fascinating supporting character, an animal whose staunch individuality should keep him away from selflessly considering the dogs’ well being, but one that assists them anyway, creating perhaps the most touching moment in the film. Through The Tod, Adams and Rosen present the possibility of finding hope even in the most cruelly indifferent circumstances, exposing a delicate counterbalance to the story’s harsh tone.
While some film adaptations tend to soften the more pessimistic themes of the source material in an attempt to enhance mass appeal, The Plague Dogs takes the opposite route, doubling down on Adams’ original ending. Doing so in the film creates an emotionally and spiritually resonant bookend to the beginning of the story, with the difference this time being a creature’s ability to take its fate into its own hands. With a captivating 2D animation style, empathetic voice performances (especially by Hurt as Snitter), and a surprisingly layered moral and thematic approach to a genre usually reserved for kids’ entertainment, The Plague Dogs is a gem that desperately deserves a second life.
(Note, there are currently two cuts of the film available on Home Video: The 85-minute U.S. theatrical cut, and the 100-minute international version. The U.S. cut is currently the only one available stateside on DVD and streaming, and the international cut can be found for a hefty price in the form of an Australian DVD. I prefer the international version, even though the U.S. cut is a perfectly fine way to introduce yourself to the film. However, Shout Factory seems to be on the case, as they pushed back their original release date for a Blu-ray to hopefully get their hands on the international version. Fingers crossed.)
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.