This review published, belatedly, in memoriam of the death of author Richard Adams.
The bubonic and beautiful, hoarse-throated The Plague Dogs, if anything, actually descends even further and more confidently into the morass of melancholy and infestation that made director Martin Rosen’s previous Richard Adams story Watership Down such a famous British miscreant in an era of child-friendly, compromised animated films. Refusing to be defanged, this follow-up to that estimable classic is a blighted wretch gnawing on the face of sanitized American children’s animation. Although Labrador Rowf (Christopher Benjamin) and Terrier Snitter (John Hurt), who escape an animal testing facility, are the protagonists, the diligence that Rosen spends drafting their trek through the countryside scouring for purpose or any scrap of stability they can possibly find is the real standout. The film exudes a quiet devastation metered out in intentionally paltry images of inescapably malnourished beauty, and the film’s fangs never retract. They’re pretty sharp too.
The dogs themselves are animated with a sense of uneasiness, flubbing skeptical movements as though learning how to exist. Although the lilting dignity in the voice acting adds little to the production, the dignity and potency of every image tell their own tale. Even the most static background speaks to a sense of isolation and emptiness, with wide images evoking with austere severity the path ahead and the absence of a definable end-goal. The layered landscape’s continuous stretch (and the ensuing stench of impossible success) exceeds even the most determined soul. For a quasi-eco parable, The Plague Dogs also refuses to compromise nature by reducing it to a theater for protagonist strife and vigilance. Beneath the bleeding heart of the animation lies an awareness of the violent indifference of nature to the problems and possibilities of any two living creatures, dog or man. If nothing else, The Plague Dogs is a reservoir of doom and near-apocalyptic imagery that works like all the best allegories: on a decidedly primordial level.
Bruised with minimalism, individual images sear into the mind. Barbed hallucinations of rocks mutated into monsters signal both the antagonism hidden in the nooks and crannies of nature and the memories of violence in the minds of the not-quite-free canines. Conflicts play out in an almost violently ascetic shot count: when Snipper and Rowf enter a butcher shop in hope of food, one split-second cut of an imposing knife poised with unknown intent is enough for the heroes (and our eyes) to turn for salvation elsewhere. Rosen also introduces the question of perspective, shifting from shots of the dog’s eyes harboring sinister intent as they catch reflections of living food to images from ever-dominant man catching the dogs, their own prey, in their sights. One particularly vicious moment of accidental death (for many, the most disturbing image of the film) is partially hidden, but the film finds a croaky echo of destruction in the screeching terror of sound wringing out in the distance like a New Wave nightmare conscripted from Joy Division or another gloom band from around the time of the film’s release.
Most affecting are a handful of frighteningly monochromatic black and white fantasies that are all the more disconcerting for how abruptly vicious the fades from present reality to pugnacious dream can be. While we expect a roaring, dreamy kaleidoscope of desire and joy as a reprieve from the mostly solemn, desaturated hues of the main story, Rosen destabilizes Snipper’s dreams by filming them as feral, chiaroscuro incisions that are unable to infuse the world with a color the two dogs so lack. Rather than a sense of hope, the barely-sketched nature of the animation for the dreams intimates memory slipping away, or a fraudulent, fragile nostalgia for a time that never existed. One sequence where dream and reality flash-back and forth in a seizure of imagination is especially terrifying. The entire film exists in a state of perilous imbalance like that, with harrowing cuts to black screens and blood-red inter-titles signaling the passage of days and invoking the ad nauseam life of the dogs on the hunt for relaxation or just a moment’s nonexistent calm. It’s a laconic work, but never able to actually sit at ease.
But it’s the wheezing, mist-ridden landscape that stretches on with the quietest confidence of all, fading out around the edges to suggest, simultaneously, unknown violence and possibility in a world that isn’t sure to bring either death or a future. Although a minimalist work after a fashion, Rosen’s “camera” – insofar as it mimics a camera’s movement – often interrupts the stasis with purposeful motions as if searching the landscape or tracking the dog. The camera partially beckons the dogs on in the generous Renoirian way to find new connection in the world, but it also ensnares them in the pitiless motion of a world and a camera that move whether the dogs are ready to continue on or not. The camera movement thus externalizes the unsettled emotional nightmare of the dogs’ existence, unsure of whether they are out to make their own story or whether they are simply some pawns in the game of life. Ultimately, in this pang of empathy for life lived as an undomesticated outcast adrift in society’s loneliness, the existential conclusion implies that the only viable future is found in a different kind of unknown.