The Dog of Flanders

I've never liked dogs. One bit me in the face when I was six months old, or so I'm told, though I obviously don't remember it. In some bit of my brain carried around from way back then, I still have an utter distaste for them. I've met a few nice dogs in my time, but I've never ever wanted to own one or be around one for more than an hour or two. However, if the legendary Patrash of The Dog of Flanders had actually existed, I just might have changed my mind.

The Dog of Flanders is based on a Flemish novel by Oui'da, and the story is apparently hugely popular there. The tale of a doomed little boy and his faithful companion has been commemorated by the Belgium government, which underscores its importance, and there are at least four live-action films of the story. So why is it so unknown in the U.S.? Quite simply, it's a dark tragedy that would be a hard sell to young children here--and more importantly, their parents. This is the kind of story that inspired Mother Goose rhymes, the ones that have hidden, bleak tales written between the lines. Does that make it bad? Of course not. In fact, it's actually quite a superior film, even in its annoyingly edited form found on the Region 1 DVD release. Though audiences may not appreciate the broad archetypes, its childlike character designs, and unrelenting pathos, the 1999 anime version of The Dog of Flanders is a really good film that I found quite touching.

Nello is a young artist who dreams of one day becoming a great painter like Peter Paul Rubens. His best friend Alois lives in comfort as part of the upper class of Flemish society. However, her father strongly disapproves of their relationship, since Nello is a poor boy who lives with his grandfather and barely ekes out a living delivering milk through town. But Nello and Alois are soulmates, and they find ways to see each other despite Alois's papa. Besides Alois and Grandpa, Nello has one other friend: Patrash, a faithful dog that he and his grandfather rescued from near-death.

But the harshness of life waits just around the corner. A mischievous incident reveals an evil taskmaster as Patrash's former owner, and the cruel man takes most of Grandpa's savings in exchange for the dog's freedom. From there, one calamity follows another, and Nello's only hope is to win a local art contest that might give him the chance to go to school and keep him and Grandpa afloat. But even then, tragedy continues to strike. As bleakness turns into despair, Nello will have only his furry companion with him as he attempts to survive the brutality of life in society's bottom rung.

Although the character designs are initially off-putting to the modern anime fan, resembling something that would appear to be only for children, they are soon forgotten in the wake of what turns out to be excellent storytelling. For all of its reasonably impressive animation and enjoyable soundtrack, it's the characters and narrative that really captured my attention. Although the concepts are laid out bare from the beginning--anyone familiar with Greek tragedy will instantly pick out the players and the bathos to follow--the plot keeps us going. Like the similarly tragic Grave of the Fireflies, we have a strong indication of what misery we're in for, but the direction and writing keep us interested. We do have to deal with a number of archetypes--the loving grandfather, the judgmental father, the crooked henchman--and the story is somewhat predictable. It's a testament that those items didn't really bother me much.

Meanwhile, after the talking kangaroos and sled dogs of recent Hollywood garbage, I was glad to see that Patrash was handled in an utterly realistic fashion. He doesn't talk, he doesn't do somersaults, and he isn't even the focus of the story. He's just a dog. And yet, he is somehow the hope in the midst of tragedy, the face of kindness in a malicious world. By the end, I genuinely cared for both Patrash and Nello. They are heartwarming characters that deserve their statue in Holland if the book is half as moving as this film. There are also layers of symbolism within Nello's interest in the portrayals of Christ by Rubens which add a lot, though that's a discussion for another time and place.

In yet another pathetic attempt at mass marketing, Pioneer Entertainment has screwed up royally in their release of the DVD of The Dog of Flanders, now essentially the only version in print. If the only flaw was that the DVD was in English only, which it is, I could deal with it. Although the English version isn't great, it does have an enjoyable performance by Robert Loggia as the grandfather, and it's better than many other dubs I've heard over the years. However, the DVD clips nearly eleven minutes from the film. The remaining 93 minutes are also edited in certain bizarre ways--for example, the ending of the film changes completely, turning into a montage of previous scenes. Thankfully, the overall content is not changed, per se, but it still bungles the director's intent.

Pioneer's editing appears to have been made to make this film more palatable to kids, since they currently advertise it as being appropriate for children three and up. This is a HUGE mistake, in my opinion. Unlike many of the other film versions of The Dog of Flanders, this one does not create a happy ending for our characters. In fact, it's desperately sad, and editing eleven minutes of it away or trying to take out the sting doesn't change that the majority of the film is downright grim. Take into account that the English language track has at least four uses of mild profanity or irreligious references to God, and you've got a film that isn't for toddlers. I think that an intelligent child in the early elementary grades might appreciate it, but I know I wouldn't let any three year old I know watch it.

If you appreciate solid anime that's different from the norm, closer to Miyazaki than to the typical rock 'em sock 'em and juvenilia out there, I would suggest trying to find a copy of the subbed uncut version of The Dog of Flanders. I enjoyed the cut version with its problems, so I imagine the original is better. It's a bit sadder than your average anime, but it's also a bit better than your average anime.

The Dog of Flanders -- mild profanity, grim subject matter -- B+/A- (breathing room given for the edited dub)