Film: The Plague Dogs (based on the book by Richard Adams)
Director: Martin Rosen; Animation: Tony Guy
Performers: John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam, Nigel Hawthorne
Production Information: Nepenthe Productions, 1982
Breed(s) featured: Labrador mix, Fox Terrier, Collie, Norwich Terrier (in one brief, disturbing scene), Yorkshire Terrier
Availability: The edited, 85-minute version is currently available on DVD and for instant viewing on Netflix. Big Sky Videos in Australia once released a 99-minute version on DVD, but according to their website, it is “no longer available.”
The early to mid-80’s is generally regarded as a low point for American feature film animation. But when nobody’s watching, those in the biz have the space to explore and to challenge the limits of the medium, as was the case with Martin Rosen’s production of The Plague Dogs.
Rosen’s follow-up to his adaptation of Watership Down (1978, also based on a Richard Adams book) is atmospherically oppressive and emotionally bleak. It’s hard to make light of the story of two animal experimentation lab escapees struggling to fend for themselves in a pitiless world. Rowf, a Labrador mix born and bred as a test animal, has been repeatedly forced to tread water until exhaustion, then resuscitated in a series of trials aimed at manipulating his capacity for survival. Snitter, a Fox Terrier, has had his brain rewired in experiments meant to scramble his perception of subjective and objective reality. During his hallucinatory episodes, he sometimes recalls the domestic life with humans that he once knew.
A fortuitous oversight allows this pair to escape the laboratory. They turn feral, teaming up with a crafty fox (the Tod) to hunt sheep in the remote English pasture. Distrustful of humans and far from any scavenging grounds, they kill as a matter of survival, but it doesn’t take long for their presence — and the laboratory’s abuses — to catch the attention of local townsfolk. Rumor spreads that the dogs are carrying the Bubonic Plague, and so it becomes a matter of urgency for the “whitecoats” (the laboratory personnel) to recover their lost animals before the matter explodes into a complete media scandal.
Make no mistake, this is a violent cartoon. The most disturbing action happens just out of sight, though blood drips across several frames, splashes onto the lushly painted backgrounds and seeps into to the chilling, desolate mood of these stark landscapes. Animals and even humans die, some intentionally, others by accident. And no meat is left wasted, especially not in the dead of winter when Rowf and Snitter are starving.
I tend to refrain from spoiling the films that I recommend others see, so I won’t say too much about this one. If talking animal cartoons isn’t your thing, you’ll have difficulty getting through the first ten minutes. But for the most part, the roles are adequately voiced by a British cast, and the script reveals strong personalities in sympathetic animal frames. The Tod, in particular, stands out as the most dynamic, likable character, even though he seemed so sinister and difficult to pinpoint upon first meeting — an elusive nature truly befitting his wild provenance.
While aspects of the presentation are a bit dated (the soundtrack, for example, suffered from excessive studio sheen — I’m not a fan of 80s music production values, particularly when it comes to genres like gospel or folk), the work cannot be faulted for being crude. The animation is pretty smooth for its time (not rotoscoped, I believe), and captures a lot of canine quirks without being cutesy. Putting aside the mediocrity of the main themes (even though it was composed by Alan Price of the Animals, a totally respectable act back in the day), a lot of care was given to sound construction, particularly in the way that village gossip, media broadcasts, and the aura(lity) of imminent doom is sonically overlaid onto images of Rowf, Snitter, and the Tod wandering the English countryside. At its best, The Plague Dogs will evoke an elegiac sense of tragedy akin to a Miyazaki movie, though it lacks any of the whimsical touches that punctuate even the darkest Miyazaki moments. It is unrelenting to the end, and will continue to haunt long after the final entry into the mist.