by Rob Gonsalves
In 1979, Martin Rosen's animated adaptation of Richard Adams' rabbit classic 'Watership Down' got a bit of a reputation for being too scary for younger folk. Three years later, Rosen turned his capable hand to Adams' far darker novel 'The Plague Dogs,' which would also get -- and deserve -- the 'too intense for younger children' rep, if it were well-known enough to have a rep, at least in America. (I'm told many British filmgoers' childhoods were warped forever by the film.)The Plague Dogs begins not on the sun-bathed English countryside (as did Watership Down) but in darkness, with a mournful, echoing gospel-type song with lyrics like "Not gonna feel the pain no more." We also hear splashing. We fade in, and we're inside a secret government animal experimentation lab in the middle of a British national park. A noble black labrador is swimming in a huge water tank; exhausted, he slips under the water and bumps the bottom. A hook fishes him out, and he's brought back to consciousness with electroshock paddles. This dog — called Rowf — is part of a water-immersion experiment to see how long a dog can swim before he drowns. Welcome to The Plague Dogs. It's not a fun movie. Nor is it meant to be.
"One of the great underseen animated films."
Adams wrote his book, he has said, as a dark satire on animal testing, government, and the media. (In the book, the name of the lab site is Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental — a sly pun for British readers: check the initials.) When the door to Rowf's cell is left ajar, he escapes with a fellow inmate — Snitter, a jittery little dog with a bandage on his head (from recent tampering with his brain). The dogs roam the bleak, rocky countryside, more or less unprepared for life in the wild. Rowf is a cynical, tired old dog who can't take any more immersion tests by the "whitecoats" — he figures he's going to die out in the wild, but he'd rather die there than in the tank. Snitter is a bit like Fiver from Watership Down; he has hallucinations of his former life as a house pet, and he wants to find a loving master so he can sit by the fire and be petted and cared for. The dogs are sighted here and there, and after a truly shocking and bloody incident that spells out in neon that this is not a movie for kids, the government redoubles its efforts to capture and destroy Rowf and Snitter. To prevent any citizens from being heroes and catching the dogs themselves — or from taking pity on the mutts and sheltering them, for that matter — the government feeds the British papers the official lie that the dogs may be carrying fleas infected with bubonic plague.
John Hurt, who lent his soothing tones to Hazel in Watership, returns here as the voice of Snitter, joined by the gruff Christopher Benjamin as Rowf. In due time, the dogs run across a fox named Tod, voiced by James Bolam as a schemer full of plots and immensely satisfying invective the way only the British can deliver it — "You bleedin' great sod" and so on. (In human roles, you can hear Nigel Hawthorne as Dr. Boycott, the head of the experiment lab, and Patrick Stewart as an army major.) The two Adams movies gave John Hurt the opportunity to play both ends of the spectrum: as Hazel, he was the level-headed one, and as Snitter he gets to suffer and complain about the cobwebs in his skull. There's a surface similarity between the Hazel/Fiver team and the Rowf/Snitter team, but Rowf isn't the thinker that Hazel was, and the dogs have no real game plan. The rabbits were escaping from one place towards the paradise in Fiver's visions; the dogs are just escaping, and the only paradise in Snitter's visions is the one in his past, the one he can never have again.
Somewhere near the middle, after the dogs have passed the point of no return, there's a brilliant circling shot of Rowf on a hill howling at the moon. The whole movie is shot through with despair and dread; it feels like a prolonged howl of helplessness. The Plague Dogs, I think, actually has a smaller body count than Watership Down, but it establishes its bleak tone in the first moments and never lightens up; the closest thing to comic relief here is Tod, but he's no Kehaar — he's not allowed to break the dark mood. This is a movie that shows you a cute little dog lying in its cell, motionless, quite dead; a custodian strolls by, says something like "Right, here's another one," and scoops the carcass up with a shovel. The sound of the shovel scraping the concrete floor is the final ugly touch of reality.
Perhaps moments like that were part of why the movie fell through the cracks. It's too grim for kids, and most adults will look at it, see that it's a cartoon with talking dogs, assume it's something like All Dogs Go to Heaven, and pass on it. (This movie is more like All Dogs Go Through Hell.) Unlike Watership Down, which can be marketed and enjoyed as family entertainment, The Plague Dogs is made of nastier, more upsetting stuff. Watership Down can be viewed at an interpretive distance — ah, it's an allegory about society and the folly of systems built on force and hatred. The Plague Dogs is a little too uncomfortably real, because Richard Adams didn't put anything in his book that hadn't actually been perpetrated on lab animals, and it continues to this day. Maybe, too, the movie was punished for being too political: Show this to kids, and they might grow up to be activists.Whatever the reason — and though I love 'Watership Down' — my sympathies lie with the underdogs, so to speak. The movie has a dark beauty, with an ending that's simultaneously depressing and transcendent, and the fact that 'The Plague Dogs' remains largely obscure is a crime.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=16207&reviewer=416
originally posted: 05/15/07 10:12:05