The Plague Dogs, Definitely Not A Family Film

This being my first post about animated cinema, I’d like to talk about a film that I have purchased in the last week that has touched my heart more than any animated piece has in a long time: The Plague Dogs. This film is not new in any respects, it was released in 1982, but is still executed brilliantly for a time before computer generated images were used in place of some backgrounds or objects in animated films (and has gotten some press recently from a certain article at Cracked.com). From the same British animation team that brought us Watership Down, The Plague Dogs tells the story of two dogs, Rowf (a Labrador mix played by Christopher Benjamin) and Snitter (a Jack Russell Terrier played by John Hurt) who escape an animal research facility located in the middle of a national park in the UK. Rowf has been going through water endurance tests in the facility (to the point of utter exhaustion) and Snitter had a brain surgery that makes him second guess “the subjective from the objective,” which causes him to constantly go through flash backs of his old master and eventually believe they are real. Not to mention how Snitter ended up killing his former master, and thus explains why he was in the research facility in the first place.

From the opening sequence we are aware of the cruelty of animal research facilities, the obvious message of the film. Water comes crashing down on Rowf as he struggles for dear life while two scientists watch with interest. The scientists “save” Rowf for another day, and quickly take him back to his cage. Shortly afterwards as the kennel master feeds the poor dogs he finds a deceased pup in its cell and slowly carries it out under the watchful eyes of the canines in the kennel. The kennel master doesn’t close Rowf’s cage properly, and Snitter hatches a plan to escape their wretched prison. They get away by the skin of their teeth, and try to find a “master” in the nearest town, but to no avail. The unlikely pair soon realize they must become wild animals in order to survive in the countryside, and killing sheep from a nearby farm is the only way to make it in this cruel world. They befriend a local fox named The Tod (played by James Bolam) along the way, and he helps the two dogs hunt game while they flee from hunters and eventually Great Britain’s own army. But not before Snitter accidentally shoots a man in the face and disappears further and further into his own mind, and makes their journey all the more perilous.

Rowf and Snitter make an unlikely pair in the beginning, but we soon come to realize why they make such a good team. Rowf is the brawn; not the sharpest tool in the shed, but good as a hunter and friend. Snitter is the brains, although his mind travels from one world to another throughout the film. He is also the unluckiest of the pair, killing both humans who show him kindness throughout the film; however accidental it may be.

The Tod is a character that keeps coming back to help Rowf and Snitter  (and even leaves them high and dry every now and again). Snitter has always trusted The Tod for his crafty nature, and even though the fox ran away a few times, he always came back to help them in the end. Rowf soon became tired of The Tod’s gluttony and scared him off during the winter, when they needed the fox the most. The two survivors had never even seen snow before, and claimed it was a way for “the whitecoats to make it harder for them.” And just as the two dogs were starving and about to give up all hope, The Tod comes back and scares the hitman (hired by the scientists to kill the two plague dogs) into falling off of a cliff. The Tod even leads the army’s german shepherds away while Rowf and Snitter escape to the sea, but not without being bitten and eventually giving his life to ensure their freedom.

One interesting choice from the director Martin Rosen is the way he depicts humans. This is an animal film after all, and tends to focus on our heroes as they are moving from place to place within the national park. They show a few faces of the scientists in the beginning, but most of the time, the humans are speaking about how the dogs escaped and what is to be done about them while they are traveling. We never see the faces of these people, just what is being done in the “human world” about the dogs; even though these animals are just trying to survive in the wild. The scientists, after they realize Rowf and Snitter have escaped, try to cover their asses and act like the dogs are not their problem. Until the farmers (after finding a few sheep missing) take initiative and call the animal research facility and ask if they lost any dogs recently. The scientists deny it, hear rumors of sheep killing dogs and later Snitter’s encounter with the hunter, and hire a hitman to hunt our heroes down to escape the public eye and keep their research facility up and running. The media blows the story out of proportion, claim that in the dogs escape they may have been infected with bubonic plague, and our heroes have an entire army on their tails. And the scientists have some explaining to do. There is even a nice bit from Sir Patrick Stewart (as the army general) where he explains that the dogs were not in the wrong, they did what any starving animal would’ve done to survive. Overall this was an interesting way to explain what was going on in the human world, without taking away the story from our protagonists (instead of taking an omnipotent view on the film, which has been done countless times in other animated films).

The Plague Dogs also has a somewhat sad but existential ending, which makes the audience question what really happened to Rowf and Snitter as they were escaping Great Britain’s soldiers. I can think of very few animated films that would even dare to leave a supposed children’s film with such an ambiguous end, as most animation studios believe children need straightforward stories and plots to understand anything going on in television and movies today, and don’t expect many adults to be watching. Very few filmmakers in this modern age even use this technique on their films, be it short or feature length. The Plague Dogs has a very independent end to a big studio production, but definitely worth viewing in the privacy of your own home (just not with any kids around).

-Caroline Boyd

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