Gandhi likely declared, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
The stage, radio, and screen comedian W.C. Fields receives the credit, probably falsely, for warning performers against working with small children or animals: they will always upstage you.
In an episode of The Simpsons, when students of Springfield Elementary leap from their chairs and race to the windows to watch strays playing outside, Milhouse exclaims simply, “Dogs are outstanding!”
All of these sentiments coalesce in movies about dogs. Canine cinema is extensive and splits into several subgenres. Some films and tv shows feature heroic dogs, like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Others are family dramas or comedies, such as Beethoven. The dog adventure, usually a lost-and-found story like Benji or Homeward Bound, has become popular as well. Occasionally dog movies crossbreed with other popular human genres. Turner & Hooch and K-9, for example, add some furry, slobbery novelty to the buddy cop flick. There are dog weepies too, like Old Yeller. Rarely do dogs appear as villains on screen, as in film adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles and Stephen King’s novel Cujo, and even in those cases scheming humans and rabies are responsible for the dogs’ mutations into terrible creatures.
Since handling animals on set is so difficult, many makers of dog movies opt for the total control of animation. In a similar way, dogs on screen, whether real or cartoon, often receive the gift of human speech, so that audiences can gain easier access to their characters' thoughts and feelings. Both of these devices help aim dog movies toward younger audiences. Yet animated, talking pooch pictures may not be "dog movies" in the fullest sense; the animals’ cuteness is simply bait for children’s attention, a lure for delivering basic lessons about proper human behavior.
Sincere dog movies for adult audiences that examine the animals themselves and our relationships with them do exist, however. Below are a few recent examples, some fictional, others true stories and even scientific investigations. All have their fare share of cuteness too.
Dogs Decoded, an episode of PBS’ Nova, helps shake some stubborn human projections off dogs’ backs and reveals the more fascinating aspects of their true nature. The program covers their evolution as a species, including some startling experiments with ancestral wolves and foxes, as well as our inextricable co-evolution alongside our canine companions. From there, the show proceeds to our modern relationships, including a visit with a pooch regarded by some as the world’s smartest for its astonishing understanding of human language. Dogs Decoded is available instantly from Amazon Prime (as Nova Season 6, Episode 7) and iTunes (as Nova, Vol.5, Episode 7) and on DVD from Netflix. PBS’ companion website also features some related links to worthwhile dog and other animal content.
Wendy and Lucy (2008) is an independent feature from Director Kelly Reichardt. Both its look and story are lean and mean in wonderful ways. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is fleeing her middle American hometown for a new life in Alaska, accompanied only by her dog Lucy, when her car breaks down in Oregon. She is alone, in an unfamiliar place, and down to her last dollar and bowl of dry kibble. As she tries to extricate herself, she faces increasingly difficult decisions, the last one certain to break the heart of any dog owner. Wendy and Lucy is available instantly from Amazon and iTunes and on DVD from Netflix.
Kornel Mondruczo’s White God (2015) is grander and even tougher. Set in Budapest, where the Hungarian government allows citizens to keep only certain purebreds as pets, the movie begins like a conventional lost-dog story. Dogfighting carries viewers into darker places than Benji, though, and White God soon gains elements of revenge movies and creature features. Dog reunites with owner in the end, but their relationship can never be the same, and we humans are to blame.
So grisly is White God in places that early press reports raised concerns of animal abuse during its production.
Here lies the movie’s silver lining: no dogs were harmed during shooting. In fact, all of the canine extras were scorned Hungarian mutts, rescued from shelters for the film and placed with loving families afterward. Every bit of the canine action, even the innocent play dressed up as dogfighting, was orchestrated by professional trainers. In a recording studio, human voiceover artists and engineers created the sounds of the animals throughout the film, from their most tender whimpers to their most ferocious snarls.
In this way, White God is perhaps the greatest triumph of human-dog teamwork in the history of cinema. So I recommend renting the DVD from Netflix for the many extra features detailing this remarkable collaboration. The film alone is also available instantly on Amazon and iTunes. Streaming viewers can hear an interview with lead trainer Teresa Ann Miller on NPR's Fesh Air.
Confronting the rough stuff of Wendy and Lucy and White God earns us the uplift of Brean Cunningham’s and Douglas Seirup’s Dogs on the Inside (2015). This documentary follows a series of linked programs that rescue abused and neglected dogs and bring them into prisons, where select inmates train the animals in trust and basic obedience to prepare them for adoption into loving families. In the process, the dogs impart similar lessons to the inmates. State laws prevent the filmmakers from revealing the nature of the crimes that the prisoners have committed, but the testimonials of the prison staff and the inmates themselves is likely enough to convince viewers’ of the human transformations. Wagging tails on dogs in the arms of new owners are proof of canine redemption. Dogs on the Inside is available instantly on Netflix and Amazon. For additional puppy and people love, though, see it on iTunes, which offers a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and updates on its participants.
And while watching any of the films above, let your real-world dog up on the couch and give him or her some lovin'.