“The Plague Dogs” features the adventures of Rowf, a black lab mix, and Snitter, a fox terrier, after they break out of a Northern England animal research station. Talking animals on the run from mean scientists is nothing new. In fact, if this was handled in typical fashion, it should be old enough to turn me away right there. Yet author Richard Adams and director Martin Rosen (both of Watership Down fame) set out to do more than sell popcorn and plushies with a cheesy adventure starring cute anthropomorphized pets.
Such ambitions are evident from the opening scenes, set inside a classified military research lab running senselessly cruel tests on animals towards mysterious ends. The facility is a disturbing den of bare cages and menacing equipment capped off by an ominous incinerator that may be the most humane way the test subjects can die. I’m guessing many parents with small children will flip the TV off at about this point.
Rosen moves over these images with a camera that pans and tilts with relaxed reverence. He reserves canted shots for the laboratory interior to show the way it twists nature and brings life out of balance. On a few occasions his winding camera movements help put us on the meandering paths that trickle down the moors, though such unusual maneuvers must have made it hard to get the perspective and proportions right.
The relatively few character designs do occasionally experience visual glitches, but these faults are smoothed over by the above-average integration of dynamic characters with static backgrounds. The footprints and impressions left in the snow are particularly notable. Another coup for Rosen’s team is the animal movement, which really makes the characters come alive. They behave more accurately than almost any animal animation I’ve seen, from their rhythmic strides and subtle panting to their curious sniffing and twitchy shifts in attention.
The focus is firmly on the animals, with enough time dedicated to them to really develop their characters and test their reactions. The humans are treated quite unconventionally, largely left as a peripheral menace no more resistible or even fathomable to the dogs than nature or fate. Rosen keeps their faces covered or out of frame in shots where their presence is necessary; portraying them with a dog’s-eye view with little for the audience to relate. To keep the action understandable, an unusual narration of dialogue snippets is used, with the voices of people miles away playing over the dog-centered adventure. It’s a solution with an eerie overtone, reminiscent of detached gods plotting the downfall of unsuspecting mortals.
Though Adams and Rosen cover issues such as animal cruelty, dubious defense research and sensational press coverage, they don’t harp on the social implications beyond the needs of the story. The focus is quite personal, with central concerns on freedom, exploration, survival, mental illness, cooperation and hope. Yet Rowf and Snitter’s adventure has definite allegorical interpretations for those who choose to see them. For instance, one could imagine them as the marginalized victims of homelessness, poverty, under-education and disease who are treated as a nuisance and even persecuted as an indeterminate threat.
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Walrus Rating: 9.0