Plague Dogs: A Review
Plague Dogs, based on the 1977 novel by Richard Adams was written, directed and produced by Martin Rosen of Watership Down Fame. The film’s story is centered on two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, who are used for experimental purposes at an animal research facility.
Animal testing started coming into light in the 60’s and 70’s and although Rosen claims this film was not a statement against animal cruelty, Plague Dogs certainly falls in with many of the more topical animation films during this time frame. I applaud the Disney and the Pixars for adding adult themes to their work, but they lack imagination or any bite. They are still children films when all is said and done. That is why I am drawn to this era of animation when there was a social message and Plague dogs delivers.
I first saw this film when I was 10 and although I can’t honestly reccomend this for children, the story and haunting images remain with me today. The opening sequence starts in a classified military research lab running senselessly cruel tests on animals towards mysterious ends. The facility is a disturbing den of bare cages and menacing equipment capped off by an ominous incinerator that may be the most humane way the test subjects can die.
The dogs escape and are barely able to scrape out an existence with help from a sly fox named Tod, before the military is mobilized to exterminate them since they are believed to carry a strain of the bubonic plague. There is a mist of doom enclosing the animals from their first taste of freedom and little doubt of their chances against the wilderness of nature and viciousness of man. Rosen often depicts them as little more than tiny blips against the countryside, simultaneously taking in the grandeur of the rocky gorges and grassy hillsides while emphasizing a sense of helplessness, exposure and danger. Like many of the great early Disney animations, the attention to detail in the backdrops provides the aura of realism and regional specificity, to say nothing of the beauty.
What I enjoyed about this film is that the dogs level of understanding was realisticly primitive. heir reactions to sheepdogs, cars, helicopters, snow, etc. is tainted by inexperience, guilt, paranoia and solipsism. For instance, they assume snow was devised by humans as a way of tracking their movements. Their psychology is given even more troubled due to the dysfunctional scars left by the lab. Rowf, a victim of swimming endurance studies, has a fear of water and a distrust for humans that colors his personality, making him grouchy, paranoid and fatalistic. Snitter is more optimistic, having once lived an idealistic life with a human owner. However, his master’s death in a traumatic car accident and lab experiments on his brain have left him prone to fits, dementia and hallucination. He experiences waking dreams and sometimes cannot distinguish the past from the present.
The focus is firmly on the animals, with enough time dedicated to them to really develop their characters and test their reactions. The humans are treated quite unconventionally, largely left as a peripheral menace no more resistible or even fathomable to the dogs than nature or fate. Rosen keeps their faces covered or out of frame in shots where their presence is necessary; portraying them with a dog’s-eye view with little for the audience to relate. To keep the action understandable, an unusual narration of dialogue snippets is used, with the voices of people miles away playing over the dog-centered adventure. It’s a solution with an eerie overtone, reminiscent of detached gods plotting the downfall of unsuspecting mortals.
The film is certainly not an over the top cry against animal testing, Rosen keeps it within the context of the story. The focus is quite personal, with central concerns on freedom, exploration, survival, mental illness, cooperation and hope. Yet Rowf and Snitter’s adventure has definite interpretations for those who choose to see them. For instance, one could imagine them as the marginalized victims of homelessness, poverty, under-education and disease who are treated as a nuisance and even persecuted as an indeterminate threat.
What makes “The Plague Dogs” especially unusual is that is that, despite the honest care and sympathy the creators have for their protagonists, there is a refusal to compromise. Unlike most animated features a happy ending is not taken for granted; hope is not necessarily well-placed. Grim reality must be faced, whether it’s the savagery of a sheep torn to shreds or the quiet misery of malnourished skin growing taunt across ribs.
The pessimistic ending has been the source of much controversy. Cornered at a beach by the military, the dogs swim out to sea where they survive longer than expected due to their endurance training. In the book, Adams pulls an unlikely deus ex machine whereby a fishing boat rescues the dogs, Snitter’s former owner turns out not to be dead and a happy reunion caps off the escapade. Rosen takes the braver route, seeing the allegory through to its logical conclusion. It works as a pessimistic bookending with the film opening shot (see below) of Rowf bursting desperately above the surface of the experiment pool as his strength fades. The spiritual overtones of the final foggy image has a dignity that the animals deserve, though I think the final revival-tent hymn pushes the message a little too far
This film has what almost no animated releases has today, character integrity. Like it or not they are who they are and few films can truly capture that flaws and all. Plague Dogs delivers it’s message without having to beat you over the head with it, and will move you to your emotional core.