A burst of jazz announces the place as 1950s London, where elderly author J.R. Ackerley begins typing a memoir. From his cozy apartment, he introduces his best friend: “My dog is an Alsatian bitch. Her name is Tulip.” Out on the balcony, Tulip squats and produces a dark trickle of urine. It is clear the cartoon we are watching will not be 101 Dalmatians, which, like so many Disney productions, could be titled, “Go Forth and Multiply, Never Mind How.” Indeed, bodily function becomes the central mystery here, as Tulip’s owner commits himself to “finding a husband for her.” The worthy suitor proves elusive. After Tulip rejects a fellow German Shepherd named Max, Ackerley declares, “She attempted to bestow on my leg all the pusillanimous love that Max had been denied.”
Animators Paul and Sandra Fierlinger drew and painted every frame of Ackerley’s story by hand. Created using a computerized pen and easel, the pictures look like they were sketched on a cocktail napkin and filled in with watercolors. At one point, the hand-drawn Ackerley himself begins drawing on a cocktail napkin. Then, on notebook paper, Tulip appears wearing a dress, and performs a rich burlesque of heterosexual courtship. This queer bemusement shows us the desire common to all sexuality, and all artistry, too. That’s why Ackerley can draw, though he is himself a drawing. It’s why, when a postcard invites him and his dog to a seaside cottage, they arrive to find the cottage is simply a larger postcard, propped up on a bluff. The beauty of life lies in our best intentions, the inky scratch. Ackerley and the Fierlingers reveal humanity by showing us our inner dog.
Ackerley’s narration is delivered by Christopher Plummer, in a voice of wisdom pricked by wonderment. I can barely recall Plummer’s performance as the cardboard villain in the Disney-Pixar cartoon Up. That movie depicted finding your soul mate as one long, tropical commotion. It depicted dogs, children and old men alike as chattering plastic toys, babyish amusements with only a veneer of maudlin “personality.” That stuff still gets to many of us because we were raised on Disney’s postwar sentimentality since birth. We may forget the cartoons that actually helped us understand the world. Remember “Teeny Little Super Guy” on Sesame Street? Small fellow? Gravelly voice? Dispensed common sense from within a drinking glass? “Teeny Little Super Guy” was animated by Paul Fierlinger. After honing his craft for six decades, the man has a feature film in theaters for the first time. Don’t miss it.