The Plague Dogs Review
Warning: this review contains major spoilers.
I apologise in advance if this review lacks style and grace. I felt it necessary to set down my thoughts, in as undiluted a manner as possible, as soon after watching the film in question as I was able. That in itself took a good few hours, as after watching it, I was unable to function properly for a considerable period of time. I still feel completely and utterly emotionally drained, and as a result this text may leave something to be desired.
The Plague Dogs, Martin Rosen's second and final animated feature is, like its predecessor, Watership Down, adapted from a book by English novelist Richard Adams. Ostensibly a polemic against humankind's treatment of animals, it manages to be even bleaker than the earlier film, dispensing with its lingering streak of hope and replacing it with brutal, fatalistic pessimism. The plot concerns two dogs, Snitter and Rowf, who escape from a laboratory and attempt to fend for themselves in the world at large. The institute, however, believing them to be carrying a strain of bubonic plague, sets out to either recapture or kill them.
That, in a nutshell, is the film's plot. As with Watership Down, we are treated to the world from an animal's perspective, in which the various creatures converse with each other in English without adopting the anthropomorphic characteristics commonly associated with animated films involving talking animals. Once again, Rosen opts for realism as much as possible, presenting the animals, humans and their environments in much the same manner as a live action film. Normally, I tend to be critical of animated features that ape live action rather than exploiting the unique facets of their medium, but in this case it works, because it firmly grounds the film in the real world and lends sincerity to the events it portrays. This is a flawed film, but one that is, despite its problems, utterly brilliant, purely because it is so viciously uncompromising and emotionally devastating. Rare in the world of animation, a medium dominated by the mawkish insincerity of Disney movies, to the best of my knowledge, only by Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies could be considered its equal. Small wonder that distributor Embassy Pictures ordered twenty minutes' worth of cuts, a futile attempt to take some of the edge off its unrelenting bleakness.
Watership Down is the more cohesive of the two films, but The Plague Dogs packs a far stronger emotional punch. While you have to slog through some meandering and, in all honesty, tedious scenes in order to get there, the journey is worth it for the final scene, which sees the two dogs drowning as they attempt to swim to an imagined safe haven (in stark contrast to Adams' book, which saw Snitter reunited with his former master) and is, frankly, the most emotionally affecting conclusion to a film that I can recall seeing. Despite knowing what was coming (given that I had read one or two pieces on the film prior to watching it, and it is virtually impossible to talk about it without mentioning its ending), it hit me like a heavy blow to the stomach, and I found myself dangerously close to tears, something that I can't recall a film having done to me in over a decade. In fact, I can actually feel the waterworks threatening to turn themselves on again as I type this.
While certain viewers have claimed to interpret the ending in a more positive light - Snitter and Rowf, they say, could eventually have reached safety - I simply can't imagine this having any basis in reality, regardless of which version you are watching (the original 103-minute version or the recut 86-minute edition, the latter of which is the most widely available). The most horrible part of it is the naive idealism that continues to buoy the two dogs up even in the throes of death, wonderfully underscored by this, their final exchange of dialogue:
SNITTER: I can't swim any more, Rowf...
ROWF: We must... be near the island...
SNITTER: If... there is... any island, Rowf...
ROWF: There is. There. Can't you see it? Our island...
While Watership Down contained a considerable amount of dark material and several incredibly fatalistic moments, it is like a trip to an amusement park in comparison with this, a film whose ultimate message appears to be that there is so much cruelty and suffering in the world that the only escape is death. A sense of hopelessness pervades from the moment the opening titles to the very final shot, and it is this gloom-laced atmosphere that forces you to hope against hope that, despite the odds, everything will be okay in the end and that the dogs will find their island. What made the death and destruction palatable in Watership Down was that there was a sense of purpose to it - that, for every rabbit that died, there were several others who would eventually find peace and safety at their new home. That there can never be an island for Rowf and Snitter, and that life really can be as cruel and heartless - and pointless - as it is portrayed here, makes this easily the most utterly miserable, depressing and misanthropic two hours I can recall sitting through in god knows how long, and, while there should be no mistake that this is a film for adults, I think it should be required viewing for every child.
I would hesitate to call this a treatise against animal experimentation, as some have claimed it to be (Rosen himself has denied that it is an anti-vivisection film). While we are certainly not given any reason to side with the scientists - or Whitecoats, as they are called - or understand their point of view, they are presented as such a faceless entity that it is impossible to see them as anything more than an anonymous force. They are as destructive as the nature that leaves the dogs with no option but to devour a human body in order to survive, and the sea that eventually claims them, and just as impersonal. A lot of that is due to the manner in which they are portrayed, seen only through the eyes of various animals and presented as the animals themselves view them. "I'm not a bad dog," Rowf tells Snitter early on in the film, unable to understand why the Whitecoats treat him the way they do. It is this lack of comprehension that makes it all so heartbreaking: the dogs simply cannot understand why the world is like this, and greet the various threats they encounter with a mixture of bumbling innocence and stupid recklessness. They don't hate the Whitecoats - they don't even possess that concept. They are simply confused as to how anyone could behave towards them in such a manner.
The Plague Dogs is a film that I can honestly say I don't ever want to watch again, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Until recently, the only uncut DVD of The Plague Dogs was the Australian release from Big Sky Video, which included both the shorter version and, sourced from Martin Rosen's own personal print, the original full-length version. That DVD appears to have been the source used by Optimum for this release, and as such the same pros and cons apply here.
Both versions are presented in a full frame ratio of 1.33:1, which seems to be the intended presentation for the film. Certainly, there is no obvious cropping at the sides, and the vertical dimensions are loose enough for it not to be infeasible that it was simply designed to be matted appropriately to whatever ratio the cinema in question was equipped to display. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shorter version is by far the better looking of the two, with a reasonably crisp transfer that adequately conveys the cold, desaturated palette. There is some evidence of edge enhancement, and the entire image seems to have been degrained a little too much for my tastes, but it is on the whole a very nice presentation. In contrast, the longer version is much softer and suffers from some colour distortion (there is a blue bias throughout), not to mention some fairly significant print damage. This is especially pronounced during the United Artists logo at the start, and through the first few minutes of the film, during which a prominent green tramline is consistently visible. Things clear up a bit, but you would never mistake this for a pristine new print, and things tend to fare worse just before and after reel changes, but we should probably thankful that the full unexpurgated version was included, no matter what shape it is in.
For audio, both versions are accompanied by a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, and the same holds true for these as for the video: the shorter cut generally sounds very good, with excellent clarity and minimal distortion, while the longer version sounds rather strained and muffled, with the dialogue at times difficult to make out and a handful of pops and other drop-outs that coincide with particularly severe print damage. There are no subtitles, which is particularly problematic given the sometimes indistinct nature of the dialogue in the longer cut.
The scores for the audio and video constitute an average between the quality of the two versions.
The sole extra is an overly long trailer, which attempts to sell the film as a rolicking adventure yarn and shows various clips against the backdrop of the same piece of music that plays over the end credits (and, in the shorter version, the opening credits). Unfortunately, what starts out as a melancholic and incredibly appropriate accompaniment to the film's final images robs itself of all its credibility when it suddenly and inexplicably turns into a full-blown gospel choir chant. If there is one film that I advise you to turn off before the end of the credits, this is it.
The great injustice visited upon The Plague Dogs by its distributor has been appeased somewhat by this release from Optimum, which is not a lavish restoration by any stretch of the imagination but at the very least allows viewers to experience the film as its director originally intended. The lack of extras is somewhat disappointing, particularly given the excellent audio commentary Rosen recorded for the Australian release of Watership Down, but for those who grew up on the truncated cut and didn't have access to the Australian DVD, the inclusion of the full length cut will probably be considered bonus enough.
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