Believing in goodness

Animation shows capacity for tragedy

Published: May 09 2017, 01:01:am

Thursday, May 16, 1985.

THE  PLAGUE  DOGS. Based on the 1977 novel by Richard Adams. Music by Patrick Gleeson and Alan Price. Written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen. Running time: 85 minutes.
MARTIN ROSEN DOESN'T PLAY by the rules. Everybody knows that cartoons are supposed to be comical. When people talk about “adult” animation, they really mean something raw and raunchy like Ralph Bakshi's 1972 feature Fritz the Cat.
    Rosen set out to change all that. Seven years ago [1978], he wrote, produced and directed an animated adaptation of Richard Adams's allegorical novel Watership Down. A tale of brave British bunnies on a journey to the promised land, his finely-crafted film introduced audiences to the idea of cartoon drama.
    Adams, pleased with the result, sent the filmmaker the manuscript of his subsequent novel. Less mystic than “his rabbit tale,” The Plague Dogs told the story of a pair of laboratory pooches who escape from the government's  Experimental Station into England's northern lake district.
    Undaunted by the necessarily downbeat nature of the material,  Rosen and his animation directors Tony Guy and Colin White have brought it to the screen with a mixture of grit and realism seldom seen in cartoon features.
    It begins with #732, a mixed Labrador retriever named Rowf (the voice of Christopher Benjamin) serving as the unwilling subject of a study horrifically reminiscent of an Auschwitz atrocity.
    When happenstance provides Rowf and his kennel mate Snitter (John Hurt) with the opportunity to escape, they flee. In doing so, they pass through rooms full of caged rabbits, wired monkeys and bar-pressing rats.     
     “There must be some reason,” says the ever-hopeful Snitter, the victim of some mind-scrambling surgery.
     “It must do some sort of good.”
    The fugitives are ill-equipped for the world outside. Unable to find a sympathetic new master and, in mortal fear of the pain-producing “white coats,” they fall in with Tod (John Bolam), a self-serving fox who teaches them the rudiments of survival in the wild.
    Inevitably, they fall afoul of the local humans. When it is rumoured that they are infected with deadly plague germs, they become the object of a serious hunt involving helicopters and paratroops.
    Fully animated in what Don (The Secret of NIMH) Bluth calls “the classic style,” Rosen's film manages to provide the dogs with strong individual personalities while maintaining their character as dogs. A cartoon that scrupulously avoids caricature, The Plague Dogs is an effectively touching, unsparingly tragic tale.
     *     *     *
    Martin Rosen will be present at the Ridge Theatre this evening [1985] to introduce his film to the  Vancouver International Film Festival audience. Perhaps someone will ask why his picture, originally premiered with a running time of 103 minutes, is now being presented in an 85-minute version.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1982. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I don’t know whether the question of The Plague Dogs' reduced running time came up during Martin Rosen’s 1983 Vancouver appearance. The answer, I later learned,  was that the picture, first shown in the United Kingdom in 1982, had been picked up by U.S. distributor Embassy Pictures. That company ordered cuts ahead of a limited Christmas 1983 North American release. All versions of the picture contain a scene in which one of the dogs’ human pursuers dies in a fall from a cliff. Not seen in the cut print is a later moment in which a helicopter flies over the mountain he fell from, a scene that includes a close-up of a torn-apart body, suggesting that the starving dogs fed upon him.
    A gentle soul, Richard Adams did not set out to be a novelist. In 1940, he was studying modern history at Oxford when he was drafted into the British Army to experience that bit of history known as the Second World War. He returned to college in 1946 and, following his graduation, settled into a career in the civil service. Capable — he rose to the rank of assistant secretary to a cabinet minister — and comfortable, he began work on his first book at the age of 46. He did it because his daughters insisted that the stories he told them each morning during their drive to school needed to be shared with the world. Published in 1972, Watership Down become a literary phenomenon, a story set in a world of spiritually-inclined rabbits that was read by both children and adults.
    A prize-winner as well as a bestseller, Watership Down is credited by academic critics with “redefining anthropomorphic fiction,” which is the scholarly way of saying it was OK for grown-ups to like a story that featured talking animals. It was OK to like director Martin Rosen’s 1978 film version as well. Adams segued into his new career as a man of letters, producing a high fantasy novel, Shardik (1974), the story of a bear, and The Plague Dogs (1977), set in the terrifyingly real world of animal research. Adams's social conscience was on display in his writing and in his life. In 1982, the year that Rosen released his animated adaptation of The Plague Dogs, Adams was serving as the president of Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve in 2016 at the age of 96.