By Alex Osben
From the first British animated feature film, Animal Farm (1954), to family-favourite escape comedy, Chicken Run (2000), animators have used animals as their subject matter time and time again. Despite the variety of styles and storylines, what is integral to these creature features is the bond between animals and humans. They explore the ways in which we relate to each other and negotiate our coexistence; what they teach us about the world around us, and about ourselves.
It comes as no surprise that one of the best represented animals in animation is man’s-best-friend: dogs. From stop-motion feature films to female-directed shorts, here is a run-down of the best British canine cartoons:
THE PLAGUE DOGS
After directing heart-wrenching rabbit drama Watership Down in 1978, Martin Rosen went on to adapt another Richard Adams novel, The Plague Dogs, in 1982. The film follows two dogs, Snitter (voiced by the late John Hurt) and Rowf, as they escape from an animal research facility, evading recapture from ‘the white coats’ and trying to survive in the treacherous British countryside. Despite their differences (Rowf remains wary of humans, while Snitter yearns to connect with them in the way that he did with his previous ‘master’), the pair help and care for each other throughout their difficult journey. Equal parts animal abuse inquiry and cinematic escape adventure, the film makes a powerful statement about the need for compassion and empathy between dogs and humans alike.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
Following the success of Nick Park’s A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), Aardman’s comedic clay duo; the hapless but well-meaning inventor Wallace and his pet beagle Gromit, returned in 2005 for the feature-length adventure, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. While providing a humane pest control service to a town that prides itself on its annual vegetable competition, Wallace uses a mind-altering machine, the ‘Mind Manipulation-O-Matic’, to discourage local rabbits from eating the resident’s prized crops. Soon after, the town is plagued by a giant bunny rabbit, leaving the intelligent and resourceful Gromit to come to the rescue. Known for his uncanny facial expressions and unwavering loyalty to his clumsy companion Wallace, Gromit has become one of the most recognisable and well-loved dogs in cinema.
After collaborating with Henry Selick on The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), and directing stop-motion animation Corpse Bride (2005), master of dark eccentricity Tim Burton directed Frankenweenie (2012). The feature-length film was the culmination of a long-running idea for the director, expanding on the story of a boy and his dog explored in his 1984 short of the same name. As an homage to Mary Shelley’s famous novel and subsequent cinematic versions of Frankenstein’s monster, a young boy named Victor, inspired by a demonstration in his science class at school, uses electricity to resurrect his deceased bull terrier Sparky. Victor’s experiment soon goes awry, ultimately teaching him how to deal with grief and accept the loss of his beloved pet. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA upon its release, and remains one of Burton’s sweetest films to date.
ISLE OF DOGS
Almost ten years after directing Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), Wes Anderson returned to animation with Isle of Dogs (2018). After every dog in Megasaki City is banished to Trash Island by Mayor Kobayashi, his nephew Atari goes on a mission to find his pet Spots. He is soon accompanied by a motley menagerie of abandoned dogs (voiced by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, and long-time Wes Anderson collaborator, Bill Murray) who are eagerly led by reluctant stray Chief. The film’s title was not only inspired by a certain geographic area of the UK, but like Frankenweenie, was produced at 3 Mills Studios in East London. The film was a huge critical and commercial success, proving that we are still a nation of dog-lovers who are eager to see our furry friends depicted on the big screen.
BFI: A NEW HISTORY OF BRITISH ANIMATION
Although not a feature film like the other entries on this list, these canine cartoons deserve a mention. Curators at the BFI have delved deep into their archives to create short film packages celebrating over 100 years of British animation, and they include a range of dog-related material. Proving that the subject of man’s-best-friend is not restricted to big studio, male-directed features, these curated programmes include numerous shorts from female filmmakers, and amongst the most innovative are the ones featuring dogs, such as the mystical companion in Alison De Vere’s Black Dog (1987) and a satirical bulldog in Joanna Quinn’s Britannia (1993) (which both feature in BFI: A New History of British Animation Part 3). These curated shorts programmes are a great example of the versatility of animation, proving that it is the perfect platform to explore the stories, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of our favourite pet. Woof woof!
Alex is an English and Film Studies graduate and current member of the BFI Future Film Steering Group, where she programmes screenings and events for audiences between the ages of 16 and 25.
What she loves about British animation is its diversity, from its subject matter and visual style to its audience appeal.