The contour line twitches thoughtfully around the principal figures in the animated feature My Dog Tulip, ruffling with the fur of the Alsatian bitch who is the title character and bristling along the surface of the well-worn, sensible wools that encase her narrating owner, J.R. Ackerley. He is drawn as a long-faced, elderly stiff whose head is a little too small for the shoulders that ride up around it. She is drawn as a marvel of fluidity, able to curl or drape herself into any space where she comes to rest—the favorite armchair, the master’s bed—or stretch at will into an arrow of excited, inquisitive motion.
Sometimes the frame drawn around these two figures will become crowded with the dowdy stuff of London in the postwar years, all gray and green-gray and graying yellow and washed-out maroon, with a few wisps of blue trying halfheartedly to break through overhead. (It was "touching and strange that she should find the world so wonderful," Ackerley recalls on the soundtrack, as you see Tulip reveling in the fullness of a garbage-strewn lot, which overlooks the murky waters of a towpath. Choking clouds of soot rise from factories in the distance, while a train clatters and smokes across the trestle bridge that doubles as a horizon line.) At other times, the world’s furniture disappears from the picture, and the space is flattened to a sheet of ruled paper—irregularly ruled, as if by a schoolchild in a hurry—where Tulip loses her handsome tan-and-black color and becomes a mere outline, strutting across the surface on her hind legs. The ratio of perceptual detail to conceptual doodling varies, depending on the ratio in the narration between Ackerley’s observations and his musings; but always there’s that slight yet insistent twitching of the line, like the twitching of Tulip’s tail (or of another part of her anatomy), imparting a material motion to even the most deliberately prosaic of the pictures and reminding you at all times that My Dog Tulip is the work of clever hands.
Directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, from a script that Paul Fierlinger based on the much-celebrated memoir published in 1956, My Dog Tulip was entirely hand-drawn and hand-painted but made on the computer, without paper. Perhaps this hybrid method helped give the film its old-fashioned, crotchety yet startlingly quick-witted nature, which suits Ackerley’s writing so well. The glumly comic self-description he worked up in My Dog Tulip (voiced in the film by Christopher Plummer, deploying an extensive repertory of sighs and lip-smacks) was that of an intellectually distinguished Englishman who had reached a certain age and then gone beyond it without having met that special friend. "Gay" would not be the word. Having grown pettish with age, he rejoiced only in his adoring and fortunately incorrigible pet, whose every unembarrassed micturition, bowel movement, snarling rebuke to her enemies and frolic through the kitchen’s store of vegetables was endearing to him, as an expression of the animal life that he had been denied. In the film, the Fierlingers bring this theme to its appropriate climax in the lengthy sequence devoted to Tulip’s mating. Enough to say that the process is extremely funny, in the way of things that are natural and yet messy, clumsy, subject to repeated failure and disruptive of several social milieus, from the suburban self-congratulatory to the shabby-genteel.
Perhaps one of the reasons Paul Fierlinger captures all this so well is that he is in his 70s and knows something about rueful mirth. He, too, might be speaking, whenever the cartoon Ackerley addresses us from his place within a scene. The other main reason, of course, is Fierlinger’s twitchy virtuosity.