The antithesis of both Marley & Me cuddliness and Cesar Millan militance, J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir about his recalcitrant German shepherd, My Dog Tulip, is one of the finest, most insightful chronicles of inter-species devotion. A complex love story, his book plumbs the inner lives of hounds: “I realized clearly . . . what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend.”
Ackerley’s empathy and wit are mostly well served in Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s adaptation—the first animated feature to be entirely hand-drawn and painted using paperless computer technology. Flat is beautiful: The Fierlingers’ simple 2-D design is an excellent match for the author’s pithy observations and abhorrence of the mawkish. The filmmakers are also faithful, in text and tone, to the writer’s fascination with Tulip’s excreta and sexual habits, topics that he details and parses to micro levels, but with the lightest, most bemused of touches.
As the voice of Ackerley—who was the literary editor of The Listener, the weekly magazine of the BBC, and the author of three other memoirs and a novel—Christopher Plummer segues seamlessly from placid narrator (whose reminiscences are sometimes presented as direct address) to anxious, exasperated, but wholly besotted minder. Eager for more celebrity throats, the Fierlingers nonsensically changed the original’s Miss Canvey—a kind, calm vet who proves invaluable to Ackerley and Tulip—to a moniker more suited to the voice of Isabella Rossellini: Miss Canvenini. That Plummer’s Ackerley then constantly stumbles over this surname isn’t the film’s only misguided intervention: The movie’s unnecessary anthropomorphization—brief, crudely drawn interludes imagining Tulip in a housedress standing on two, not four, legs and her potential mates in three-piece suits and fedoras—is the biggest disservice to Ackerley’s sensibility.
But what the Fierlingers’ Tulip gets absolutely right is Ackerley’s wistful honesty and introspection. Unlucky in love and tired of cruising (fleetingly glimpsed onscreen), the gay author, almost 50 when Tulip came into his life in 1946, frankly discusses how her companionship forever changed him in a passage, paraphrased by the Fierlingers, from his 1968 memoir My Father and Myself, published one year after his death: “She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion. . . . The fifteen years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.” That happiness could be tempered by extreme doubt, as Ackerley frequently wondered whether or not he was failing the creature he loved so dearly and who loved him unconditionally. His gift—and the film’s—is to transform the seemingly banal relationship between pet and owner into something singular, inimitable, sacred.