Martin Rosen didn't make any concessions with The Plague Dogs, even more-so, arguably, than Watership Down. While making a serious animated film about rabbits might sound like more of a challenge, and is a great film, I would be more inclined to people I know for them to watch The Plague Dogs to see how truly brutal Rosen could be as a filmmaker.
Adapting from a book by Richard Adams, who also wrote Watership, this is a movie that a kid might be inclined to see right away just by the picture of dogs running around on the front cover - some may not understand the word 'Plague' and even if they do they'll want to see it anyway... That is, if they can find it, as it is not very widely available. But for parents, it has to be indicated what this film is: this is dark and gloomy and with an ending that is at best ambiguous and at worst so sad that it will make your kids' reaction to Bambi or the Lion King look like a scraped knee. It will f*** them up emotionally.
And yet it will, too, for the adults seeing it. This is not a perfect animated film but it is one of the most gut-wrenching and opposite-of-heartwarming you may ever come across, animated or otherwise. It's about two dogs who are subjected to vicious psychological and physical treatment (think that one brief scene in Secret of Nimh only not brief and with dogs instead of mice) and somehow escape the facility and go on the run. They scrounge for food, finding very little, getting some limited help from a mischievous fox. But one of the dogs, voiced by John Hurt, has a scar where the surgeons operated on his brain at the clinic - he can't distinguish objective and subjective, and if he's in a room for any long length of time colors change. Then after an accidental death, the dogs are even further pursued, this time claimed by the humans in the area to be infected with the Black Plague.
If it doesn't sound happy it doesn't look it either. The film's ultimate purpose is about hope, the lack of it, where it becomes nil quicker and quicker as innocent figures are cast aside and hunted down. While there's been some criticism that the film (or the book for that matter) may have some "statement" about animal cruelty or testing, it never really stuck out for me. I was so wrapped up in the story, the nature of the horrific dynamic that these two dogs were in, that I had little time to really put a lot of thought into the issues. Indeed, this is sparse in terms of characterization, though rich in detail as the dogs go along these black and gray mountains, the rubble around, the snow falling all around. There's not one sunny day around (then again it is England),and as their circumstances get worse, and the odds grow thinner, our attachment peaks at a point - and it goes over it in the last five minutes with an ending that would leave the toughest Clint Eastwood wannabe sobbing for dear life.
But as with, for example, Grave of the Fireflies, or in literary comparison Cormac McCarthy's The Road, whatever is heartbreaking is earned by the artistry, the commitment to making this a dark, mortifying hurdle through existence. Not all of the animation syncs up completely (albeit this may be sour grapes as I have only seen the 82 minute severely censored version that may have cleared up a couple of gaps- as far as I could tell it wasn't a flaw on Rosen's part),but everything in terms of atmosphere, or provoking a certain place of dread brought about when humanity is at its worst, and dogs at their most vulnerable, that you can't help but be moved. Hell, we even get one of Hurt's best performances, voicing a bi-polar dog who should already be dead or past the point of no return, and at one point even asks for it in a moment that had me floored (the bit about not having to worry about eating if one is dead).
The Plague Dogs isn't a 'for-everyone' animated adventure - for the love of all that is sacred do NOT show it to your dog-loving first-date - but it's entirely successful, and criminally underrated, as a mature work of art, a precisely sorrowful story that should appeal to anyone looking for a good, warranted cry and a look at dogs that is the sort of clear version of some diluted movie made at the same time like The Fox and the Hound. A+