This is a new entry in my series of appreciating and exposing the criminally underrated and/or misunderstood masterpieces in film history.
My first memories of The Plague Dogs goes back to the time when my father bought a VCR when I was 6 or 7 years old. One of his best friends at the time worked for the Turkish National Television (Kind of like BBC for Turkey) and would get his hands on VHS copies of classic movies that ranged from 2001 to The Jungle Book.
My dad would borrow a lot of animated films from his friend, most of them Disney classics, and my guess is The Plague Dogs kind of got mixed in with the rest of the more children friendly titles. You can’t blame my dad and his friend much since on the surface, The Plague Dogs is an animated film about two talking dogs.
I remember watching the film with some horror but with a relatively clear head. Years after I’ve seen it, I’ve completely forgotten the title but it’s images kept haunting me. Specifically, I remember the horrifying opening scene which depicts a group of lab workers testing the stamina of a Labrador by drowning him in a giant pool. You don’t see many Disney films about talking dogs with this kind of an introduction.
Fast forward twenty some odd years and I came upon an article on the web about the 6 most disturbing children’s films and there it was, right up at #1, a screenshot of the drowning Labrador next to the name The Plague Dogs. So I tracked down the film and watched it again for the first time after 25 years.
The Plague Dogs was directed by Martin Rosen, adapted by Rosen from a book by Richard Adams. The same people collaborated on a previous animated film, Watership Down, which is also notorious for being far too violent and grim for a children’s film. After Watership Down’s success, Rosen apparently tried his luck on a much harsher story by Adams, with a bitter anti-animal cruelty message.
The distributors of course didn’t know what to do with an adult animated film about talking animals. It was heavily cut in many countries and was marketed as a family-friendly animated flick, which even with it’s cut 85 minute version, is a gross case of bad advertisement. Needless to say the audience ran away in droves and Martin Rosen’s career never recovered.
It’s a big shame because The Plague Dogs is quite an unsung masterpiece and possibly one of the best animated films ever made. It is a film for adults and adult-minded children who are not afraid of a bit of harsh truth. Yet it is not adult in the same sense that Heavy Metal and countless Anime movies and TV shows are, and that’s what makes it so unique.
In a lot of animated films for adults, the emphasis is usually on the cathartic satisfaction of the (usually male) audience’s base instincts, full of gratuitous violence and nudity, perhaps in some way to balance out the wholesome reputation of the medium.
As harsh and violent as The Plague Dogs can become, it is always level-headed and honest about it’s message and is never gratuitous, even with an infamous scene depicting a tragic accident with a shotgun. It shows the extent of animal cruelty in the name of science in an unremitting way.
The story is centered around Rowf the Labrador (voiced by Christopher Benjamin), who is the subject of the drowning experiment in the beginning of the film, and Snitter the Jack Russell (Voiced by John Hurt with his trademark hypnotic delivery), who suffers from constant migraines and hallucinations due to the experiments the “white coats” performed on his brain.
After a careless caretaker leaves Rowf’s cage unlocked by accident, the two escape the lab and set off on a quest to find a “true master”. According to Snitter, the white-coats are not real masters and every dog needs a master. Unfortunately they find the real world to be much harder to deal with.
Apart from it’s anti-animal cruelty message, the film is also an almost poetic examination of facing one’s fate and mortality. The way Rosen presents the open-ended yet quite obvious fate of Rowf and Snitter is among the most emotionally moving endings to any film, animated or otherwise.
The animation style is very stark, like the story itself, and some of the little details add to the realism. For some reason, Disney’s talking animals have no visible genitalia. But in the plague dogs, all of the animals’ naughty bits are also drawn. Not only that, you can see them peeing on trees on some occasions. These may not seem like important additions, but the details help build credibility.
The way the characterizations of the protagonist animals are created immediately lets us understand their motivations and actions. 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 (Yes, his name is The Tod), a fox who helps Snitter and Rowf find food, is an absolute opportunist, although he becomes somewhat of a hero near the end.
The Plague Dogs is a film unlike any you are likely to experience any time soon. It is at the same time harsh, honest, disturbing, loving and compassionate.
Right now, you can watch the rare uncut version of the film on Youtube if you click on the link below. I don’t know how long this link will remain active so I advise you to dig in: