The Plague Dogs is an animated movie that follows the story of two dogs who have escaped from an animal research facility in North West England. Snitter, who has had some kind of brain surgery (voiced by John Hurt) and Rowf, who was almost drowned during an experiment at the beginning of the film, escape after a lab worker leaves Rowf’s cage door unlatched. They make their way through the lab and out through the incinerator, just in the nick of time before almost being burnt alive. They run out in the the countryside after first trying to find “a master” who will feed them. After being scared away by either their uninformed perception or by real threat, they attempt to live off of the land as feral dogs, even though they’ve had their shelter and food provided to them via the lab from which they escaped.
Being unfamiliar with living on their own, they obviously face hardships such as hunger and the elements – as the story takes place starting in early October and spans roughly 48 days. Because they’re not used to living on their own, they aren’t cutting it, and soon after they find shelter, it’s invaded by one of the slyest of foxes, named simply “The Tod”. The Tod offers to help them survive if they share the fruits of their hunts with him. They apprehensively take him up on his offer, even though they really don’t think the Tod can be trusted – they know he may be their only hope of survival. Along the way, Tod does betray them a few times, and in exchange both Rowf and Snitter do some pretty stupid things on their own, but mostly due to their inexperience, or not understanding how to interact with humans.
Because these dogs are now living off of the land, sheep and livestock end up missing or dead out in the fields, and farmers start taking notice and complaining. Through a string of what’s basically the telephone game, farmers and citizens of the nearby villages start to put their own story together that the nearby animal testing facility lost some dogs that are somehow infected with bubonic plague for military application. This eventually gets put through the ranks and all the way up to the secretary of state, who orders the Royal Air Force to get involved to take care of the dogs – now those are your tax dollars being put to good use!
Most of the film is pretty believable, and I definitely felt sympathetic to their story. This is probably one of the most realistic portrayals of animal behavior I’ve seen in an animated movie. However, some “accidents” are pretty damned ridiculous, like near the beginning a human calls snitter over after he runs off during an episode of delusion. Snitter runs up to the man and goes to stand on his hind legs for some petting action and accidentally steps onto the trigger of a hunting rifle the man had been carrying – resulting in the man’s face being blown off.
Although The Plague Dogs was released in 1982, I was still very impressed by the actual animation. There were a considerable amount of parallax effects – where the foreground stays, and entire background shifts and moves around as if it’s being filmed with a camera on a dolly. While the actual art style may look a little rough by today’s standards, and I think some may be put off by the drab green and browns that fill the palette of this move, I think the realism invoked by that choice really drove the message home how gritty and tough these animals had to be to survive.
I know a lot of old schoolies think that animated movies are for kids, and while I’m sure that’s changed quite a bit thanks to the popularity of anime and prime time cartoons, you’d be an absolute dumb ass to dismiss this movie simply because it’s not live action. The story does move slowly in spots, but the story is dark and engaging, and definitely not for younger kids. The Plague Dogs puts 4 out of 5 drowning dogs on a leash.