akita, animated features, antarctica, basenji, BBC, brazilian film, breeders, dog movies, german shepherds, goodbye my lady, hachiko, Italian film, japanese akita, japanese dogs, japanese film, karafuto dogs, laboratory animals, old yeller, pedigree dogs exposed, plague dogs, sakhalin huskies, seeing eye dogs, sled dogs, walt disney, will smith, working dogs
Because we know the holidays aren’t just about feelgood times in the company of family you can’t stand during the rest of the year, here are ten dog movies that will depress the hell out of everyone and totally ruin your holidays. If things are getting too jolly around the living room, load up one of these films and watch the mood plummet faster than you can say, “Hand me the flask.”
Spoiler alert: A prominent canine character dies in at least six out of ten of these titles. The descriptions below may or may not indicate which ones.
To avoid redundancy, I didn’t list anything that had appeared on my previous list of Top Dog Movies, compiled two years ago. That was my arbitrary reason to omit Journey of Natty Gann (1985), Amores Perros (2000), and Inu no Eiga (2005) which could easily have fit here. I also tried to stay away from some of the typical titles that top these lists like Marley and Me (2008) or Where the Red Fern Grows (1974 & 2003); those were probably better off remaining as only literary properties, anyway.
I will, however, begin with at least one obvious choice, primarily because I haven’t blogged it yet.
10. Old Yeller. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Spike the Dog. Walt Disney Pictures: 1957.
Having recently rewatched this children’s classic after not having seen it in probably 20 years, I was struck by a few revelations. The biggest was that older brother Travis Coates, whose self-sufficiency and stiff upper lip in the face of emotional trauma seemed so crushable to me as a child, just seems petulant and downright brutish to me now. He may know how to plow and hunt and keep the household in ham, but he’s kind of a jerk — one who just happens to love a dog that even the cruelest kid in the west should be able to love. Screw you Travis, and your annoying little brother too.
The film’s primary redeeming quality is that they knew to give ample footage to Yeller, the hulk of a Lab-Mastiff cur who comes across as a superdog capable of any task you set before him. For Travis to gain a modicum of maturity at the sacrifice of Yeller’s life seems particularly unjust when one witnesses how badly he regresses in the failed sequel Savage Sam (1963). Yeah, Disney sure sent that sequel to the hogs…
9. Hachi, a Dog’s Tale. Dir. Lasse Hallström. Perf. Richard Gere, Joan Allen, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Chico, Layla, Forrest. Inferno/Stage 6: 2009.
I’m kind of allergic to most romantic leading males (e.g. Richard Gere), so I was initially resistant to this Americanized retelling of the famous story of the loyal Japanese Akita, Hachiko. One masochistic night, I decided to stream this on Netflix, and found it refreshingly sufficient for what little it aspires to be. Transplanted from Tokyo to Rhode Island, this version is relieved of the burden of nationalist authentication, allowing it to “just” be about a dog loving professor and the Akita of his affections. Because their relationship is so untainted and simple, it becomes more like a lament over the poor animal’s inability to process abstractions like death rather than praise for his unflagging loyalty, a sentiment I’ve never been comfortable taking at face value.
Could this spot have been replaced with the 1987 Japanese version (screenshot pictured above)? Well, they used actual Akita instead of Shiba puppies in that one, but it’s kind of hard to topple the downysoft duo of any Nihon ken puppy plus Richard Gere. The American version succeeds by being less moralizing, even gentler, and even more vapid than the predecessor. You don’t have to go into this expecting to think too much, just cry, dammit! Cry! The power of Hachi compels you!
And speaking of sentimental remakes of Japanese originals…
8. Nankyoku monogatari [Antarctica]. Dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara. Perf. Ken Takakura, numerous dogs. 1983.
In 1958, a Japanese expedition to Antarctica had to abandon their team of sled dogs for reasons unexpected and uncontrollable. Fifteen Sakhalin huskies (Karafuto dogs) were left tightly chained to a line with only a week’s worth of food, as the team originally had expected they would return for them. Eight dogs were able to slip or break free of their chains, but then they had to learn to survive in the severe climate and treacherous landscape. Eleven months later, members of the expedition were finally able to return, discovering that two of the original dogs had survived all that time. This film dramatizes that adventure.
With a soundtrack by Vangelis and a pseudo-documentary approach relying on an omniscient narrator to relay the dogs’ thoughts, I suspect the Japanese version strikes a more somber tone than its Disneyfied remake, Eight Below (2006). The Japanese version also presents a more eclectic canine cast than the uniformly purebred Siberian huskies of its American interpretation. With a greater emphasis on the dogs, counting down with each tragic death, there was little attempt to cover up the truth. In fact, a significant side story to the dogs’ survival plot involves one of the expedition members embarking on a grand tour of apology, visiting the families who had contributed sled dogs and personally accounting for his role in the dogs’ noble sacrifice.
At any rate, the austerity of the landscape is thankfully counterbalanced by many scenes of happy, off-leash dogs running fast, loose, and free.
7. Quill. Dir Yoichi Sai. Perf. Kaoru Kobayashi, Kippei Shina, Rafie the dog. Quill Film Partners: 2004.
Quill was raised from puppyhood to be a seeing eye dog, and to spend his life helping others. Due to no fault of his own, he never really gets to stay in a permanent home. His life is his job, such that he barely gets a chance to be a dog. Or rather, as a dog with a job, he has changed the very perception of what it means to be a modern dog. Such selflessness! Such devotion! Such an honorable, purposeful existence! Pass me another tissue, please.
6. Plague Dogs. Dir. Martin Rosen. Perf. John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Hawthorne. Nepenthe: 1982.
As much as we praise the functional dog who works alongside his human partners, there is also a dark side to this relationship, as in the animal testing laboratories of modern industrial societies. Rowf and Snitter are two dogs who escape from such a nightmarish world. However, their presence creates something of a government scandal, as local farmers fear they may be carrying the plague or other diseases created as experiments in bioterrorism. So the hunt is on to capture the errant pair…
Not having read the Richard Adams book on which this animated feature was based, I was completely unprepared for the soul-crushing heaviness of this story. While this is the only animated feature on this list, it is pretty exceptional as far as non-Japanese animation goes, and definitely a memorable title that fully demonstrates how evocative hand-drawn cel art can be.
5. Vidas Secas [Life is Barren]. Dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Perf. Átila Iório, Orlando Macedo, Baleia the dog. Luiz Carlos Barreto Produções Cinematográficas/Sino Filmes, 1963.
Poverty and pets don’t mix. Down with the exploitation of the agricultural peasantry!!
4. Umberto D. Dir. Vittoria De Sica. Perf. Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Flike the dog. 1952.
Poverty and pets don’t mix. Down with the oppression of the urban underclass!!
3. I Am Legend. Dir. Francis Lawrence. Perf. Will Smith, Abby & Kona the dogs. Village Roadshow: 2007.
A cancer cure gone wrong has turned into a disastrous virus, wiping out 90% of humanity and turning the remaining 9% into photosensitive mutants who feed on the 1% of humans possessing natural immunity. Will Smith plays a military doctor who is part of that exclusive 1%, occupying a depopulated New York City with his faithful German Shepherd, Samantha. She is the only other living thing that responds to language — except, unfortunately, his stop or recall commands when it really, really matters.
After her passing, it seems intolerable for life (or the movie, for that matter) to go on, but it has to conclude somehow. The unwatchableness of the last, dog-less third does its part to ensure some potent ill will towards the filmmakers, if not all of humanity.
2. Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Dir. Jemima Harrison. BBC One: 2008.
While we might fabricate good reasons to distrust science in the name of Hollywood fantasy, there are actually compelling reasons to heed science in our day-to-day transactions, including the breeding of our beloved pets. This British documentary is certainly not the first to have raised concerns about the ethics of purebred dog breeding, but its sensational manner created an unprecedented splash when it was first broadcast — all the better to get the public talking.
The 50-minute long documentary is not without its faults, as the director has no time to spare in airing the happily-ever-after pet stories that we take for normal. She has been targeted by some rather vitriolic breeders and critics, as her blog frequently reveals. Perhaps what’s most depressing is not what this documentary reveals about the health of some breeds as a whole, but rather what it exposes about the mindset of some people at top echelons who have completely warped visions of what it means to be breed stewards.
If the YouTube movie embedded above does not work, just search for another version. It’s readily available online, last I checked. The sequel, Pedigree Dogs Exposed: Three Years On (2011) continues the investigation with some extra footage to be found on the DVDs, available for purchase here.
1. Good-bye, My Lady. Dir. William Wellman. Perf. Walter Brennan, Brandon deWilde, Sidney Poitier, My Lady of the Congo. Batjac: 1956.
So here’s another iteration of boy-gets-superdog, boy-loses-superdog-and-gains-maturation theme. Though I didn’t rank this list in any particular order, I would put this one far higher than the title that began this roundup because the dog is a Basenji, and the Basenji doesn’t die.
TAKE NOTE, future screenwriters and directors! Contrary to convention, the dog doesn’t have to die for the characters to arrive at enlightenment. Leave the dog alone. If somebody’s gotta go, try killing off the boy or mom and dad or a few hundred mutants or half the town’s population first. Audiences and critics will hate you less.