Martin Rosen goes unrecognized in the realm of filmmaking. He might have only directed and written two films, but finding any other animated film to compare “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs” to is nearly impossible. Rosen was an important pioneer in animation not only taking bold risks in his imagery, but narratively constructing and discussing subjects its genre is afraid to acknowledge. “The Plague Dogs” (just like “Watership Down”) is an important animated film that pushed it genre to show what it can pull off with no boundaries.
The Plague Dogs follows dogs Rowf and Snitter that escape from a laboratory and are hunted as possible carriers of the bubonic plague. Opening with a Dog struggling to stay afloat in a test chamber setups the film tone and past this opening it holds nothing back. The dogs whose journey we experience have the mannerism of actual dogs. Inexperienced and loyal to each other the dogs are unsure of the world, forced to reach deep inside to become survivals in harsh conditions, and discussing opposing views of a “master”. Snitter whose ideal of a master is one treated with respects as his companion while Rowf opposing view is one of cruelty serving nothing more than a tool for the “master”. There is truth be found in both characters despite being different species have regrets, dreams, tackling the harsh reality as best they can. They don’t have all the answers with their journey never guaranteeing they’ll be safe. Despite spouting English dialogue the dogs are never removed from reality. Characterizations of the animals are created with human characteristics, but through the viewpoints that makes sense through an animal; Rowf is a realist who thinks the world is cruel and there is no hope for a better life. Snitter is an optimist who, even under the worst conditions, is convinced that a master and a warm home is always just over the hill. The Tod, a fox who helps Snitter and Rowf find food, is an absolute opportunist. These thoughts make sense in nature staying true to survival of the fittest among the common living creature.
It’s not so much a film on the cruelty of animal testing, but the cruelty of the world. Doing so without asking us to leave out our personal lives in order for its aesthetic to ring true. Never does it hammer the question if animal testing is inhumane rather focusing on the more important if the cause of the action or action itself is more inhumane. It is worth eliminating another creature livelihood for our own purposes. The human point of view is given through conversations between farmers, townsfolk and researchers, which, along with some media reports, are all presented as voice overs as we watch the dogs do whatever they’re doing. For the most part, humans are kept as faceless, omnipresent entities. Having all the pieces connected it comes towards the ending. An ending that embodies the best in characters, emotions, and thought provoking mood that can bring tears to anyone. This tearful ending is earned made all the more powerful by our connections to our protagonists that will remain with the audience long after it ended.
Martin Rosen often depicts the protagonists 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. The attention to detail in the backdrops provides the aura of realism and regional specificity. Integration is accomplished by the way of dynamic characters with static backgrounds. Footprints and impressions left in the snow are particularly notable. Another coup for Rosen’s team is the animal movement. They behave accurately like an animal from their rhythmic strides and subtle panting to their curious sniffing and twitchy shifts in attention. Rosen moves over these images with a camera that pans and tilts with relaxed reverence. He reserves canted shots for the laboratory interior to show the way it twists nature and brings life out of balance. On a few occasions his winding camera movements help put us on the meandering paths that trickle down the moors, though such unusual maneuvers must have made it hard to get the perspective and proportions right. Cast of characters is relatively small; for most of the movie, it’s just the two dogs and the fox, with additional dogs or humans popping up when they’re needed. Christopher Benjamin does an excellent job as Rowf, sounding hardened by years of torture, while as Snitter, John Hurt sounds appropriately frail and delirious. James Bolam is charming as The Tod, and brings a little bit of welcome humor to the grim tone film. Nigel Hawthorne and Patrick Stewart have small roles as a doctor and soldier, respectively. Patrick Gleeson’s score is suitably moody, while Alan Parsons provides the song “Time and Tide.” Although it sounds melancholy at the beginning, its gospel chorus is surprisingly upbeat, suggesting that there may be a little light at the end of the tunnel after all.
The Plague Dogs is a masterpiece incomparable to any other in its genre. Its grim color palette and harrowing story never once remove the idea of hope. Very few animated films look, feel, and tackle the issues “The Plague Dogs” does and even fewer can compared to it. Not taking the safe route “The Plague Dogs” displays tragedy in mature work of art where by the end have you thinking of the beauty of it all.
I was unable to obtain the specifics of what he input into the film, but director Brad Bird was listed in the credits as an animator. Visually and in tone the two couldn’t be further apart, yet when it comes to their stories it’s rather difficult to pick who’s the better storyteller as both have pushed their narrative beyond what its genre restraint them to.