19 August 2011 | BrianDanaCamp
Compelling anime adaptation of a classic novel
I have both the English dub of DOG OF FLANDERS (1997) and the Japanese-language version with subtitles. I prefer the voice-acting in the Japanese version and I think it makes a big difference in the overall feel of the film. One can argue, of course, that it seems odd for 19th century Belgians to be speaking Japanese and addressing each other with Japanese honorifics ("o-JI-san"), but one can make the case that it's equally odd to hear them speaking English. If there was a French dub, that might be the optimal alternative. In any event, the Japanese voice-actors capture the right vocal inflections for these characters and draw us seamlessly into an already emotional story.
If you know the famous story, then you know its tragic elements. If you don't, you can sense the sadness right from the opening scene as we see a nun visiting the Cathedral of Antwerp with a group of orphans and recalling the boy artist she knew in childhood. The fact that she uses the past tense and the fact that the laughing, vivacious girl we see in the story, told in flashback, has chosen to become a nun should give us a clue that something didn't go right. The girl is Aloise and she's the daughter of a local landowner. The boy is Nello, an orphan who lives with his grandfather in a shack on the landowner's property and has to spend his days eking out a living with his grandfather by picking up milk from the neighboring dairy farmers and taking it by cart into town at dawn to sell to bakers and grocers. Patrasche is the dog they use to pull the cart and he was rescued by Nello after being abandoned by his previous owner, a cruel peddler who whipped the dog unmercifully, refused to feed and water him properly, and drove him to exhaustion. One of the most harrowing episodes in this story occurs when the peddler finds Patrasche with Nello and proceeds to try to take him back.
Nello loves to draw and relies on scrap paper supplied to him by a sympathetic art dealer in town. He is mesmerized by the Reubens paintings on display in the cathedral. He draws a beautiful picture of his playmate, Aloise, and her father criticizes him for wasting time on such frivolous pursuits. Nello hears about a contest for young artists, the winner of which will get a scholarship to an art school. Despite serious setbacks, including a catastrophe that he's falsely accused of causing; constant harassment by Hans, the weaselly rent collector; and a major tragedy in his life, Nello continues to labor on a drawing of his grandfather and Patrasche, using a canvas earned by doing errands for the art dealer. He enters it in the contest, but the outcome is not in his favor. Dejected, he wanders out, uncovered, into a blistering snowstorm. There is hope on the horizon for him, but will he learn of it in time?
There's a powerful sense of oppression throughout, of prejudice towards the poor, brutalization of the young, and a lack of opportunity for poor Nello. He has a few adult supporters, but is beset with mistreatment by everyone else. And he's such a sweet, kind, pure soul. How can they DO this to him? And I couldn't help but think that the whole tragedy could have been averted easily by one simple assertive act by a grateful adult in the course of the tumultuous finale. It's a very sad tale, with a tearjerking ending underscored by the beautiful song, "When I Cry," sung magnificently on both the English and Japanese soundtracks, in English, by American singer Dianne Reeves.
The character designs are based on the designs used in the 1975 Japanese animated TV series that formed the basis for this movie. They're not quite as simple and rounded as the TV designs and they have a little more detail put into them. The backgrounds here are extraordinarily beautiful and exquisitely rendered. We see many shots of the country landscapes, the rolling hills and the long canals, and also the many buildings of Antwerp, including its towering cathedral, as well as its streets, alleys, marketplaces and the bridges over the city's canals. When we visit the cathedral, shots of Reubens' actual paintings are inserted into the film.
The English dub is about nine-and-a-half minutes shorter than the Japanese version. Most of the cuts involve the removal of establishing shots from over two dozen scenes, the point of which eludes me. There are three short dialogue scenes that were cut. The longest, lasting 49 seconds, involves Hans's report to Aloise's father of seeing the two children entering a barn alone and a response by her mother. As we are shown in the uncut version, Nello is simply sharing his drawings with Aloise, while Hans' voice-over wonders about the harm to the girl's reputation. The viewers know it's all a misunderstanding. In the cut version, the kids are seen entering the barn, followed by a cut to Aloise's father listening to Hans's admonition and then vowing angrily to forbid his daughter from seeing Nello. As a result, we're not quite sure what the kids did in the barn. If the purpose of the cut was to protect children from Hans's lurid suspicions, the cut version makes it worse by leaving it up to young viewers' fertile imaginations.
I have the first five episodes of the TV series this is based on. Those episodes, occurring some two years before the events of the film, are much more upbeat and focused on the joy of the children's time together and their activities out in the world. It's less plot-driven, but more focused on everyday experiences and burgeoning relationships. While the movie is a gripping emotional drama, the TV series is, quite simply, a work of breathtaking animated art.