The Plague Dogs (1982)
Directed by Martin Rosen

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Two dogs, a terrier named Snitter and a Labrador named Rowf, escape from an animal research laboratory located in the Lake District. Subsequently, helped by a fox known as The Tod, Snitter and Rowf attempt to survive on their own by hunting sheep. Unfortunately, in addition to the trouble Snitter has distinguishing between the objective and the subjective as a result of an experimental operation performed on him, he and Rowf also face being shot by the humans who have begun hunting them, at first because they have killed several sheep belonging to local farmers, but, later, because it is revealed the dogs may have been exposed at the laboratory to a new strain of the bubonic plague.

Martin Rosen's animated movie The Plague Dogs is so deeply involving and so terribly sad that it is likely to make a real and lasting impression on any sensitive viewer.

Throughout its duration, the film is pervaded with a nearly overwhelming sense of despair. Not only does the director repeatedly remind the moviegoer of man's cruelty, of his willingness to inflict pain upon other living beings for his own profit or convenience, but he also exposes the sufferings of those beings men injure. By so delineating both humanity's callousness and its effects, by revealing the bloody savagery of the world, its omnipresent pain, Rosen leaves the viewer profoundly shaken. Even the rare moments of joy scattered here and there in the film are tinged either with wistful feelings of loss or regret or with a dreadful foreboding, an awareness that any moment of happiness the protagonists enjoy is sure to be succeeded by misery. The movie is surely among cinema's most affecting tragedies.

As horrific as this vision is, The Plague Dogs is still able to arouse feelings of pleasure. Snitter and Rowf are both wonderfully realized characters and the viewer is certain to be simultaneously involved in their existence and touched by their experiences. Rosen brings out their joys, their fears, and their frustrations with considerable skill. What is more, he does so without reducing his film to a contest between crude caricatures. Snitter and Rowf are themselves presented as capable of committing acts of violence, and their friend, The Tod, while likeable, is often duplicitous and self-serving. Even the human beings with whom they interact, or whose actions affect the dogs' lives, are not reduced to vacuous monsters. Several are shown as kindly, as is, for instance, Snitter's former master, and others are shown as cruel only insofar as they are unconcerned about the welfare of those they do not consider persons, which is the case with most human beings. Instead of presenting the viewer with a vision of a world divided between the good and the evil, Rosen exposes a reality inhabited by persons who, in themselves, mingle decency with viciousness.

All these elements make the movie affecting, but they do not constitute the whole of its appeal. The story Rosen tells, which is based on the book by Richard Adams, is itself well crafted and captivating. At no point does the director give in to didactic excesses and allow his work to degenerate into some tedious sermon, as it easily could have. Instead, he narrates such a nicely told story, filled with interesting characters and carefully introduced events, all of which are brimming with excitement, sorrow, and hope, that whatever didactic content the film has serves only to involve the viewer more thoroughly with its protagonists.

Finally, I should note that while the animation used in the movie is rarely gorgeous, and is occasionally flawed, it is always so distinctive that it does add to The Plague Dogs' appeal. In fact, the director has produced a fair number of images of real beauty, as well as many others that are evocative of a heartwrenching sorrow. The viewer is, consequently, able to engage with a lovely but harsh world and to feel the joys and the miseries with which it is filled.

I am hesitant to describe The Plague Dogs as a masterpiece, but it is one of the most touching and tragic films I have ever encountered. It is, as a result, genuinely memorable.

Review by Keith Allen

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