J.R. Ackerley was a mid-century English writer whose body of work isn't well known to nonspecialist Americans. A friend and contemporary to many writers who were more successful than he, Ackerley was open about his homosexuality—no mean feat in the 1940s and '50s. Ackerley was apparently something of a loner and a miserablist, too, one who despaired of ever finding a lasting relationship or an "ideal friend."
But a life-changing friend did appear late in this writer's life—in the form of an unruly Alsatian bitch that was left in his care by a lover who was about to be sent to prison. Thus man and dog embarked on a beautiful friendship that would last more than a decade. During this time, Ackerley produced his most enduring contributions to English letters: a novel and a memoir, both inspired by his dog. In an apercu quoted in Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's wonderful animated film, Ackerley wrote, "Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs."
My Dog Tulip, which features narration by Christopher Plummer and additional voice work from Isabella Rossellini and the late Lynn Redgrave, is based on the memoir of the same title, which Ackerley wrote about his years with the dog (she was actually named Queenie; the name was changed in the book to avoid associations with the author's sexual orientation).
The animation has the texture of watercolors—fresh ink being absorbed by paper, and shaky, wavy lines. The music, too, is period and often cheeky, particularly a number that accompanies a scene of dogs engaging in that most important of social rituals, mutual ass-sniffing: "I'll sniff yours if you sniff mine," goes the choral arrangement. The film, which is unsuitable for young children, also affords an unsentimental glimpse into an older generation's standards of pet ownership, including a horrifying development late in the story.
For any adult who's adopted a dog for the first time (such as me), the film's presentation of the early days of cohabitation will be fondly familiar—learning to take walks in the rain, enduring hours of aimless, obsessive sniffing and scooping lots of poop. But, most profoundly for a loner like Ackerley, having a dog alters his relationships with his eccentric associates. Tulip becomes his most important friend, and by placing himself in the service of his animal, the old man is better able to serve his own needs.