Nepenthe Productions (December 17 1983), Trinity Home Entertainment (August 17 2004), single disc, 85 mins, 1.33:1 open matte ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Rated PG-13, Retail: $14.98
Based, as with the earlier Watership Down, on a Richard Adams novel, The Plague Dogs follows two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, as they make a break for liberty when they escape the confines of their animal testing laboratory. This they do, late one night, launching a county-wide sweep by the humans to search and destroy. Lost and confused, the dogs amble through England’s north Lake District country, searching for “freedom”, though scorned by every other animal they meet as being touched in some way that seems foreign to the rest of them. Through chance encounters with humans, whom we overhear, the audience learns that the dogs have been infected with an illness and were under examination. It seems Snitter, the smaller of the two, has undergone some further surgery, and is in need of urgent attention. Slowly, the dogs make their way towards the coast, where the humans, among them an army unit, are closing in…
This immensely powerful film is unfortunately presented here in a truncated United States issue that omits nearly 20 minutes of important material. We refer you to this review of the uncut edition, which was released in Australia direct from director Martin Rosen’s own print.
The Sweatbox Review:
Not long ago I was embroiled in the old “animation’s not a genre, it’s a medium” debate. Naturally I was on the side of the animators and aficionados who can’t stand the fact that “animation” often gets used as a blanket term for the form, when in reality there are many genres within animation itself: sci-fi, musical, action/adventure, fantasy, romance and drama, to pick but a few. It’s a little bit the same as the term “independent film”, which conjures up images of edgier, art house fare, often with something specific to say. Once again, there are many genres of independent film (in a way, George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels are the most mainstream example of that, in that he totally finances them himself and pays Fox a fee to distribute). So, if we go with the notion, just for the moment, that an “independent” film means something not in the mainstream (such as experimental animation, another term that annoys me, since when is good animation anything but experimental?), then The Plague Dogs is perhaps the most prime example of a narrative animated art house movie.
Once again, and I really must emphasize this: animation is not the genre (and The Plague Dogs is certainly not a film that falls easily into the category at all anyway) – animation is the tool used to tell the story, and perhaps no-one in wide release animation demonstrates this better than Martin Rosen, a live-action producer who only turned to animation as a means to making his film Watership Down. A celebrated version of Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down could probably be made nowadays as a CGI hybrid, with computer-animated bunnies living out their “real” lives. As such, back in 1978, when Rosen wanted to adapt the story to film, the only technology that would allow this was traditional animation, and he took the bold step of planning and overseeing the film as if he would a live-action feature. The result was a stunning adaptation of a deep and intricate novel, the best British animated feature since Animal Farm (1950), and still regarded by many to be the one to match in terms of all-round achievement.
Rosen had started out as an independent producer in the 1960s, hitting it big with Ken Russell’s infamous Women In Love, with Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. He made his directorial debut with Watership Down, released in 1978, the making and success of which led to him to another collaboration with writer Richard Adams, whose book The Plague Dogs again had several elements that dictated that it would be “easier” to complete and work best in animation. Like the later, similarly toned and equally brilliant Raymond Briggs adaptation When The Wind Blows, The Plague Dogs is a much, much darker film than Watership Down, having, at its heart, a powerful anti-animal testing story, which is deceptively simple.
Opening in an animal testing facility in England, we are never told explicitly what treatment the laboratory dogs Rowf and Snitter have been subjected to, but it is certainly enough for them to be desperate enough to want to escape, and unlike any other animated film yet released, The Plague Dogs takes this tough subject and turns in an extraordinary experience. And watching The Plague Dogs IS an experience. Perhaps it’s closest to Bambi in its stark portrayal of realism, but there are no funny bunnies here to take away the sting, nor even the occasional playfulness or excitement to be found in Rosen’s own Watership Down. The Plague Dogs is a bleak film, full of the realities of life, and that the protagonists are dogs perhaps makes one feel even more for them. Likewise the muted colors, full of the melancholy mood of rural England, strike a harshness that doesn’t set out to make the countryside any more cosy and inviting than it intends to.
The animation was handled by much of the same crew as that on Watership Down, with some future big names in the credits, among them Brad Bird, who would of course go on to be involved in a number of much celebrated shows and films, including his wonderful The Iron Giant and winning this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar for The Incredibles – about as far as one could get away from The Plague Dogs if searching for polar opposites! The drawing here is amazingly lifelike and naturalistic – especially in the extraordinary, non-rotoscoped human animation – lending it not only another level of involvement, but another note of frustration in that so few people – even in animation circles – have ever seen it.
The voice work is spot on too, with John Hurt returning to perform for Rosen after Watership Down in the role of Snitter, and Christopher Benjamin as Rowf, which had originally been offered to Jeremy Irons, but who had not sounded quite right for the part. The rest of the cast, among them James Bolam as a wily fox the pair encounter, Nigel Hawthorne as one of the “whitecoat” doctors and, in smaller roles, Warren Mitchell and Patrick Stewart, are cold and calculating, providing the unnaturalness that Rowf and Snitter experience while out on their adventures, and coming over as intentionally unnerving.
The film sparks a frank discussion on animal testing and cruelty: “There must be some reason, mustn’t there?” Rowf asks rhetorically, “It must do some sort of good”. That we warm to Snitter and Rowf does put the filmmakers down rather firmly on one side of the argument, and the faceless, humourless humans don’t put up much dispute on their side. The dogs’ break for freedom is born more from desperate frustration and wishing to bring to an end their current situation than any real malice or need for revenge on their captors, even though they realize from the outset that those captors will chase them and want bring them back. During the pursuit, the dogs likewise only carry out their confused actions with a natural desire to survive.
At one moment in the film, an event occurs that places them in a situation which offers no chance of redemption – an incident that only strives to point out their animal instinct as well as reaffirming that this really isn’t Disney one is watching. Of course, ultimately the dogs’ journey is futile, being an escape to nowhere: they don’t know their location and have no idea where they are going to; at least in Watership Down Fiver had a premonition of where the rabbits were headed, here it’s just a memory from Snitter’s past that was lost long ago. It’s interesting when we first see Rowf that he is submerged deep in a water tank, fighting for his life, as this is also how the film ends, with a bookend, intentional or not, suggesting that even if the situation is the same, then at least the dogs choose to end it on their own terms.
After an October 1982 release of the original 103-minute film in the UK and internationally, Embassy Pictures balked at the fairly depressing picture and ordered cuts be made to soften the blow before they would agree to distribution in the US. A truncated cut, running just 85 minutes, was premiered in the December of 1983, before being given a limited release across the United States in 1984. Unfortunately, it’s this cut that has been widely available since then, even around the world. In a futile attempt to make the film more appealing to family audiences, the new shortened cut was marketed more as an adventure movie featuring two lovable dogs on the run – something that surprised audiences who ended up witnessing the harrowing story unfold, cuts or no cuts!
In the end, and perhaps predictably, The Plague Dogs was deemed a failure, not least because this “happy ending” version was still a dark film and wasn’t able to either appeal to families nor those adults who might have made the more mature full-length version successfully recognised. As such, The Plague Dogs has gone down as a bit of a cult film (and one often cited by activists who were impressionable young people at the time they first saw it), though the sad thing is that only those persistent die-hard fans have ever been lucky enough to really see the uncut original. Today, it’s chiefly remembered by those young children who were unwittingly “subjected” to it in original theatrical or video release, its message lodged powerfully in their minds.
Briefly made available in the UK by the film’s backers and first distributors Thorn-EMI, the best way to see The Plague Dogs is via these early PAL VHS copies, of which only 8000 were ever duplicated. When this new DVD version was announced by Trinity Home Entertainment, the initial specs mentioned the 103 minute running time, but Trinity were apparently unable to locate the uncut master and settled instead for the senseless US version. My suggestion would be to try whoever now owns the Weintraub library, which was the last known issuer of the full version, again on VHS, in a sell-through edition for the UK market (luckily the tape edition I own).
Recently, Anchor Bay issued the title in the UK, followed by a cheaper disc from budget label Hollywood DVD, but these too contained the cut version, and were certainly not aided by the extra four percent PAL conversion speedup, meaning that the film was further time compressed to just 81 minutes! Unsurprisingly, given the mess over the release of the film, director Rosen would only go on to direct one more (live-action) film, in 1987, and eventually returned to his greatest success by re-imagining Watership Down as the successful, but overly simplified, television series of the late 1990s. Let’s hope one day that he finds it in himself to create one more animated feature, or at least see The Plague Dogs, an important film to remember, restored to its original intention.
NOTE: If this had been the complete 103-minute cut, I would have had no hesitation in easily marking the movie a full 10, but as it is the 85-minute re-edit it loses points. However, the tone of the film still comes through and is still sufficiently powerful enough to warrant a high score. The film has subsequently been issued in Australia in its original uncut version, though the print used has not been cleaned up in any way and is lacking in color correction. It does remain the only way to see Rosen’s film as it was intended however, and as such is a recommended disc. Read a full account of this edition and distributor Big Sky Video’s Watership Down disc here.
Is This Thing Loaded?
This Region One edition features nothing on the disc other than scene selections. In the UK, the previously mentioned Anchor Bay disc supposedly added at least a trailer, though if it was the same one as was on their website, then this was actually little more than a couple of minutes of Alan Price’s Time And Tide (which closed the original cut and was added to the front of the US version), accompanied by several scenes from the film. The later Hollywood DVD edition (a reminder that both UK issues only contain the truncated cut) didn’t even offer this, but it is worth noting that this Region One disc does offer the best transfer – comparisons reveal they were all taken from the same source print and this one easily carries the sharpest image. However, it is high time that The Plague Dogs was recognised properly for the brave and bold film it is, and reappraisal of the full version on DVD is long overdue. Though not an exemplary transfer, the Australian edition from Big Sky at least allows this, but Trinity’s Region 1 disc under scrutiny here warrants very little use.
A standard black keepcase houses the disc which utilises a lighter than usual version of the theatrical poster art. A note that this is an “animated classic” perhaps implies that this is kids fare, but do be warned that this really isn’t a joyride adventure film. The film is chapter indexed, but there’s no insert in the case.
Ink And Paint:
Presented in 1.33:1 full-screen, there seems to be no great framing problems, and logic would dictate that this is an open matte presentation cropped top and bottom in theaters, as with Don Bluth’s films from this time, to create the widescreen ratio. Given that Watership Down was a great success on video, it is also probable that The Plague Dogs was created with future TV-sized showings in mind – certainly blowing it up to fill a 16×9 display had no adverse effects. This aspect does reveal more of the animated image, and there are no instances of chopped off characters or tight framing, so it is satisfactory, especially when one takes into account this is the trimmed version anyway, and missing much more than a little extra image info.
When it comes to the print, things are in good shape, though again one would hope that a decent copy of the full, uncut edition is found soon and issued to disc, since it makes The Plague Dogs a much more powerful film; this truncated version not always achieving its point of toning down the material, leaving it at a halfway point. The only other gripe is that whatever distributor card has been removed from the beginning has simply been lopped off, with the result that the incoming music (Alan Price’s Time And Tide song, added to the US release) loses its first couple of bars. It could be a tad dark in places, but apart from a little gate weave, and the odd specs around the reel changes, colors here are good, and the image shows little signs of fading: the titles are as blood red as anyone will remember them. The film, like Watership Down, has a fairly pastel palette, if a little more bleak, and this seems faithfully reproduced.
As bare and barren as the video presentation, The Plague Dogs comes to disc with a no-frills Dolby 2.0 Stereo track, taken directly from the print. Though the film isn’t one that cries out for plenty of surround activity (it’s far too introspective and talky for any sonic bells and whistles), this mix follows the video’s lead in being perfectly acceptable while nothing special. The desolate sounds of the wilderness, the far off echoes of civilization, and the monotone, cold and scientific approach of the “whitecoats” are all evocatively realized, while Rowf, Snitter and The Tod’s dialogue provides more emotional dynamics, coming through strong and clean. The music, when it plays, spreads things around a little, and the heavy military climax ups the sound levels for maximum impact. Animated films are all about making the voices sound as if they are coming from the characters on screen, and the original soundtrack features expertly placed and equalized vocals, which have been well transferred to disc and lose nothing of their haunting quality.
Essentially, this is a feature-length wait for the two leads to meet their doom, and even with the ambiguous US ending (which keeps hope alive until the very end), its themes are certainly not typical Disney fare for the family audience and still then hard to swallow by mature adults. But The Plague Dogs deserves more than its standing in some quarters will have you believe. It’s a deep and often disturbing film that marks its own patch in the animation landscape, being not an adult sci-fi extravaganza or a titillating sex-and-drugs social comedy, but a heartfelt, serious and affecting drama which does offer something very rare: a truly rewarding animated experience for grown-ups.
I’d love to be able to recommend this DVD, and it’s almost worth hunting down just to take in the gist of the film and imagine what could have been for those without multi-region playability, but this shortened version doesn’t do itself or the audience any favors. Added to this is the presentation, which is lacklustre to say the least, especially when one considers the Watership Down reputation and the treatment being given to such other films of the time as Wizards, Fire And Ice and the feature-packed edition of Rock And Rule. In this day and age, the very least we should be offered is the full-length, original version of The Plague Dogs, which might have taken some extra research and handling by the distributor but surely would have paid off for them in the sheer numbers of fans that have built up and continue to wait patiently. As such, I’m afraid we’re still waiting for anything close to a definitive edition.
NOTE: Again, the overall score for this edition should be way lower, considering the edited nature of the film and lack of extras, but I have decided on fairly high points based on the surviving strength of the story and simply as it is to be commended that The Plague Dogs has made it to DVD at all. For those capable of playing multi-region discs it is well worth reading our comparison between this and the Australian edition from Big Sky Video. THAT release of the full version rates full marks and is highly recommended.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?