Tag Archives: Fable

CAPSULE: THE PLAGUE DOGS (1982)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

PLOT: A pair of dogs escape from a medical experimentation facility in Scotland and are hunted down as possible carriers of the bubonic plague.

Still from The Plague Dogs (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Yes, the idea of a depressing animated film about the horrors of animal experimentation is a strange one; but, accepting the oddness of the subject matter, Plague Dogs‘ execution is straightforward.

COMMENTS: “Why do they do it? I’m not a bad dog.”

Movie openings don’t come much bleaker than this: a black Labrador is swimming in a tank of water, exhausted and struggling to keep his head above water. “I think he’s starting to pack it in,” says the white-coated lab scientist observing him. The lab’s legs stop paddling, his eyes glaze over, and he sinks to the bottom. A hook appears and grabs him by the collar. “I think he went a little longer that Wednesday’s test,” the scientist observes as the dripping canine is hauled from the pool. He’s resuscitated, he’s vitals are measured, and he’s thrown back into a stone-floored cage with dozens of other dogs in varying states of wretchedness and despondency. The scientists schedule his next trip into the tank for Monday.

If this opening gives you the animal lover in you pause, then realize that it does get better for Rowf the Labrador—but only because it can’t get worse than being drowned multiple times a week. With the help of Snitter, a terrier with an ugly bandage duct-taped to his head to cover up the opening in his skull through which the white coats have been digging into his brain, he does escape the hellish laboratory; but life on the outside (rural Scotland) is not so easy, either. Snitter once had a human master, and believes they can find one again; but people treat them as mangy strays and shoo them away. On the edge of starvation, Rowf figures out how to kill a sheep, which of course angers the neighboring shepherds. Meanwhile, the scientists are afraid the escaped dogs will bring them bad press, and so spread the rumor that they are carrying the bubonic plague, which causes the locals to shun the dogs more. They eek out an existence on the edge of starvation with the help of the Tod, a scheming fox who teaches them how to live in the wild in exchange for sheep scraps. But their days are numbered, as a posse inevitably closes in.

As if that’s all not bad enough, Snitter has a tragic backstory of how he lost his beloved master. He has flashbacks to his happier days, sitting by the fireplace with his master scratching his head. His heartbreak is squared, when you realize what he’s lost. He’s also suffering canine madness brought about by all that brain probing—and sometimes, you wish he would stay lost in his delusions. There is no joy and very little humor in The Plague Dogs: the tone alternates between despondent and harrowing. The only spark of hope is Rowf and Snitter’s refusal to abandon each other. At times, each decides to lie down and wait for death, only to have the other pick him up to face another miserable day. And yet, you have to give the movie credit; it’s uncompromising in its viciousness, and sadly beautiful. Have a hanky nearby; this one goes in the pile with emotionally devastating adult cartoons like Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and When the Wind Blows (1986).

The animation is good, not great, but the artists have carefully studied canine movements to give these two anthropomorphic pooches realistic mannerisms. Snitter helplessly scratches at his bandage with his paw; Rowf, wary, slinks out of his cage. Snitter’s two dream sequences are mildly inventive, mixing color with black and white to create doggy dreams.

Snitter and Rowf are a classic outlaw team, outsiders whom we root for against the “legitimate” authorities. On the surface, the movie is a vicious attack on animal experimentation, but our heroes could easily stand for oppressed minorities, or the poor and homeless—anyone who’s undeserving of the hardships, scorn and fear society saddles them with. Or, it could be a pure existential allegory about the callous indifference of fortune, which doesn’t care if we’re good or bad dogs when it randomly doles out its head-scratches or its drownings.

For years, The Plague Dogs was only available in the 82-minute American theatrical version. In 2019 Shout! Factory dug up the extended 105 minute version and restored the film by splicing in two prints. They offer both versions of the film on Blu-ray (although I’m not sure who’s interested in seeing the shorter cut), and include a 15-minute interview with Rosen as a bonus feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By dealing mostly with talking, thinking animals as traditional cartoons do, but putting them into strange and harsh circumstances, the film also hammers home its differences from Disney-style animations and their refusal to face real-world problems except in disguised and symbolic form.”–David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jamie,” who recommended it “not so much for its content but the fact that this film was actually made (who greenlit a film about a pair of dogs going through hell, and then tried to sell it as an adventure film), as well as its exceedingly nihilistic and morbid tone (all for a story about talking dogs!)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

Psiconautas, los Niños Olvidados; AKA Psyconauts: The Forgotten Children

“Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.”–“The Parlour Companion” (1818)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of Andrea Alzuri, Félix Arcarazo, Eba Ojanguren. Josu Cubero; Lauren Weintraub, Jake Paque, Sofia Bryant, Dean Flanagan (English dub)

PLOT: This fable takes place on an island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals years after a nuclear disaster has devastated the ecology and economy. Dinky, an adolescent mouse, plans to run away with her friends, hoping to leave the island and find a better life. She desperately wants her boyfriend Birdboy to accompany her, but the feral child is addicted to pills and too absorbed in his own problems to join the small crew.

Still from Birdboy, The Forgotten Children (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Birdboy: The Forgotten Children began life as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez. Pedro Rivera, a screenwriter who had directed one animated feature at that time, read the book and got in contact with Vázquez to see if he would be interested in adapting the book into a movie. The two made the short “Birdboy” in 2011 as a proof of concept, then were able to raise funds for the feature film.
  • Psiconautas won best animated film at Spain’s 2016 Goya awards but it was not a financial success, grossing a mere $13,000 in Spain and only $52,000 worldwide.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When Birdboy’s adolescent brain finally breaks and his horde of shadowy bat demons break loose, flocking up his lighthouse lair and coalescing into a dark dragon with glowing red eyes and a vicious pincer beak.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Abused alarm clock; adopted luchador pup; addicted nose spider

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Birdboy is the story of cute, drug-addicted baby animals stranded on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic island. It’s got talking alarm clocks, piggy banks, and inflatable ducks, all of whom have tragic stories to tell. It’s not afraid to give a puppy a rifle, or put one in a skintight leather mask. But for all of this sarcastic nihilism, it’s not a black comedy, but an empathetic fable and an immersive spectacle, told through beautiful and often psychedelic animation.


Trailer for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

COMMENTS: Birdboy is, honestly, a pretty easy sell. It’s got cute Continue reading 351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

FELLINI’S LA STRADA (1954)

Most film historians and critics credit La Strada (1954) as the first Felliniesque film. A major success which won the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film, La Strada moved into the top tier of world film directors.

Like most romantic spiritual mythology, the appeal and accessibility of La Strada is found in its simplistic symbolism. Yet, the simplicity is also deceptive. My painting professor from art school once advised us that “obsession is often a good thing.” Here, we see the Fellini we have since come to know emerge with his obsessive themes of circuses and seasides in compositions populated by what would become archetypical figures. Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina is cast as the eternally naïve gamin Gelsomina. Masina clearly patterned her character after . Fellini had used Masina, albeit briefly, in their first collaboration, The White Sheik (1952), and would extend that characterization in what is possibly their best work together, The Nights Of Cabiria (1957). Cast opposite Masina is her counterpart, Anthony Quinn, as the strongman Zampano. Quinn could be likened to Arthur Thalasso’s Zandow from Langdon’s The Strong Man (1927), or Eric Campbell’s “Goliath” from a number of ’s films. or even Pablo Picasso’s Minotaur. Rounding out the surrealistic trilogy is Richard Basehart’s high wire act as The Fool.

Zampano needs to replace his previous assistant Rosa and purchases the young, slow-witted Gelsomina from her mother. Zampano is cruel and brutish to his charge, but like Langdon’s waif, an inexplicable higher force seems to protecting her. Her pantomime act endears her to the circus crowd and she becomes the main draw.

Still from La Strada (1954)Although the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is abusive, somehow it works, according to the divine plan, until the serpent enters Eden. Being Fellini, the symbolism is not as Biblically simpleminded as that, and we are introduced to The Fool through pagan entertainment fused with the symbolism of religious fiesta. He appears elevated, adorned in cherub wings, but angels fall in myths, and on the ground the Fool  proves to be no angel. Although his concern for Gelsomina initially seems to be genuine, he is apt to manipulate her. The Fool’s relationship with Zampano is more clearly combative. He mercilessly taunts the strongman and Fellini injects a hint of a previous, cruel ménage a trois with Rosa (a substitute for Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam).

Long-suffering, Gelsomina’s virtue is a channel to the enigmatic infinite. She mourns Zampano’s treatment of others instead of her own sufferings under his hand (sexual abuse is hinted at, but wisely avoided). Gelsomina’s status as a model of feminine submissiveness is revealingly emphasized in a convent vignette.

We are privy to Zampano’s lack of self-awareness and empathy that stems from his own past abuse. It is not his continuance of the cycle, but abandonment of Gelsomina, which finally severs her allegiance to him. The gripping, catastrophic finale echoed Tyrone Power’s shattered geek in Nightmare Alley (1947).

The Marxists, among others, saw Fellini’s break from neorealism here as a betrayal and, despite all the accolades gifted to La Strada, the film and its creator provoked a sea of controversy. Like Chaplin, Fellini celebrates the derelict. To the subscribers of ideological pragmatism in art, the ultimate blasphemy was Fellini’s portrayal of post-war Italy filtered through the dual lenses of naturalism and fantastic parable. The director’s legion of early admirers would brand him nothing less than a heretic after his later forays into opulent surrealism.

Nino Rota’s haunting score and Otello Martelli’s ethereal, nuanced cinematography add considerably to La Strada‘s seductive quality. Rota’s theme music proved to be a resounding popular success on European radio for decades following.

 helped finance the film’s restoration and introduces a Criterion Collection release that predictably is loaded with a wealth of extras. Among the supplements is an audio essay by film scholar Peter Bondanella, the documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography (which originally played on Italian television), and a second, charming documentary focusing on Masina and her off-screen, on-screen collaboration with Fellini.

CAPSULE: THE RABBI’S CAT (2011)

Le Chat du Rabbin

DIRECTED BY: , Antoine Delesvaux

FEATURING: Voices of François Morel, Maurice Bénichou, ,

PLOT: The adventures of a talking cat owned by an Algerian rabbi, who innocently blasphemes, wants to be bar mitzvahed, and tags along on a quest to find the black Jews of Africa.

Still from The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eccentrically conceived, The Rabbi’s Cat is an oddity of animated Judaica, but it’s not quite special enough to crack the List.

COMMENTS: Almost as strange as an Old Testament story, The Rabbi’s Cat begins in earnest when the titular feline swallows a rival pet—a parrot—and thereby gains the power of speech. The cat’s owners, a rabbi and his daughter, are surprised by this unusual development, but not quite as shocked as one might expect; the rabbi is more upset by the fact that the cat’s very first words are a lie (“I didn’t eat the parrot”) then he is by the fact that the conversation itself violates God’s laws of nature. That odd tone persists throughout this episodic film, which never finds a surefooted approach to its bizarre conceits but nonetheless remains witty and fascinating most of the time. The cat is conceived outside of human Jewish traditions, so he finds Bible stories ridiculous (“even a kitten wouldn’t fall for that!,” he complains about Genesis’ creation narrative), and when he blasphemes it seems innocent. But he also desires to be a Jew like his master and beloved mistress, and becomes obsessed with being bar mitzvahed, despite the fact that he shows no allegiance (and in fact a good bit of skeptical hostility) towards the teachings of the Talmud. The story is set in the 1930s in an Algeria populated by uneasily coexisting Jews, Arab Muslims and French Christians, but the multi-ethnic paradise of Algiers is eroding: antisemitism is on the rise, and Nazism lurks around the corner. Perhaps the turmoil of this pre-WWII world explains why the story is so jumbled up; or, perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the film is adapted from a five-volume graphic novel series, and strains to fit in too many incidents, characters and storylines into its running time. In the course of the tale, the cat gains the power of speech, then loses it after uttering a forbidden name of God (although for unknown reasons he can still speak to other animals and to Russians); just as arbitrarily, he starts talking again after being treated for a scorpion sting. A cousin with a pet lion, a Russian Jew smuggled in a crate of books, a bloody duel between an alcoholic Tsarist and a scimitar-wielding Bedouin, and the cat’s semi-erotic obsession with his master’s curvy daughter also jostle for our attention. The animation style wanders almost as much as the narrative. Although most of the film is drawn in a style only a little more elaborate than Hergé’s “Tintin” scribblings, there’s a surrealistic dream sequence, done in an even simpler and more childlike style, in which the rabbi literally cries an ocean of tears then lounges in his own salty discharge (smoking a waterproof hookah and nibbling on passing fish). And for unexplained reasons, when the cat and his companions actually discover the ancient hidden city of the Ethiopian Jews, the style changes again, so that the characters now appear as bizarre Hanna-Barbera caricatures of themselves, complete with huge round eyes. Mildly surrealistic touches like this, along with the script’s disinterest into sticking to any one plot or style for very long, make this a weirder (and richer) experience than it had to be.

Sfar wrote five volumes of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics between 2002 and 2006. In 2009 he paused his cartooning career and turned to film directing with the fantastical biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which incorporated a puppet to represent musician Serge Gainsbourg’s libido.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A horny talking feline who wants a bar mitzvah is just the start of the weirdness in the loopy yet unfunny animated feature ‘The Rabbi’s Cat.'”–Kyle Smith, The New York Post (contemporaneous)