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Pet Sounds: A Howl on Behalf of My Dog Tulip

For a film as rhapsodic as the animated My Dog Tulip (at the Film Forum), words are insufficient: One wants to bark with joy and, at times of melancholy, issue a plaintive howl. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s adaptation of aging British bachelor J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir of life with his beloved German shepherd is worthy of its source. You’ll rarely hear a more perfect fusion of actor and first-person narrator than Christopher Plummer, who speaks in a tender, melodious rasp, with a dying fall that reminds you that the root of the word “nostalgia” is the Greek nostos, or pain.

Ackerley, the arts editor of the BBC magazine The Listener, was an odd duck; he was openly gay but, by his own report, never good at forming intimate relationships. In the volatile, fiercely loyal Tulip he found both a companion and a subject—and perhaps, as well, a way of writing about his bodily urges without, you know, mentioning them. He wrote obsessively—in passages that the movie reproduces—of the animal’s urine and bowels, of the embarrassment they caused him that, I’m guessing, he secretly welcomed, as it gave him an excuse to keep other two-legged creatures at bay. Later, he would track, in language at once explicit and Wodehousian, his attempts to mate his bitch in heat with suitable overeager canine suitors.

There is a quality in animal memoirs I find nowhere else, a straining after a different sort of “negative capability,” of a prose rhythm that strives to capture the elusive point of overlap between two species' radically unalike perceptions. Ackerley depicted a dog on whom he projected but who (I cannot bring myself to write which and that) also tugged him out of his settled worldview. So did the late Carolyn Knapp in her Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. And so has Knapp’s friend Gail Caldwell, who in her aching new memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home mourns Knapp by seizing on the subjects of Knapp’s own books—drunkenness and dogs—and adding her own distinctive voice, as if trying to keep the dialogue going into the next world. I dwell on these dog books because the film of My Dog Tulip evokes that reaching-out. Although doggedly faithful to the book, the Fierlingers had a stroke of genius. They show Ackerely typing away at his memoir and then reading aloud while the older Tulip lies half-asleep on the sofa. Does she understand? How could she not recognize the meaning of the timbre of his voice?

The animation is deceptively simple and “impressionistic,” and it reminds you why the “flat” kind will always trump 3-D: The borders of objects and people and animals quiver with motion, emotion, with a suggestion of impermanence. At times the Fierlingers switch to a second style, a childlike stick-figure cartooning that evokes those moments when the tweedy Ackerley seems carried off by juvenile exuberance.

The distributor, New Yorker Films, is pitching My Dog Tulip at a grown-up audience, and I more or less agree. But why deprive a sensitive, dog-loving child with a decent attention span? If only--if only--one could share it with one’s dog...