Animal rights through the eyes of two dogs: cartoon for grownups

There's no good reason why cartoons can't be made for grownups. Yet the history of adult animation has been rocky. Most attempts have strained so hard for ``maturity'' that they became childish -- like the raunchy fables of Ralph Bakshi -- or have been pushed aside by viewers as ``experimental,'' like Suzan Pitt's amazing ``Asparagus.'' One of the most ambitious cartoons of the late '70s was Martin Rosen's version of ``Watership Down,'' the popular Richard Adams novel about rabbits hunting for a new home in hostile terrain. Rosen treated the tale with intellectual seriousness and advanced techniques, but wound up with an ordinary film, losing the more insightful touches of Adams's book, which wasn't very deep to begin with.

Now, tackling a better Adams novel, Rosen has made a much better movie. ``The Plague Dogs'' is harrowing in story and urgent in subject, dealing with animal rights and the relation of human beings to their planet.

While the film drastically reduces the themes as well as the plot of the book, and falls apart badly at the end, it raises at least some of Adams's deeply felt concerns and compels attention with engaging characters. The result is a bona-fide thoughtful cartoon that may attract both adults and older children, though its PG rating is more than justified by some nightmarish situations that surround the canine heroes.

They are a pair of dogs in the clutches of a British research laboratory. Rowf, the big one, is often subjected to near-drowning in a water tank, to test his adaptability. Snitter, the little one, has been given a brain operation that confuses his distinction between the outside world and his own mind. Seizing a rare chance to escape, they find themselves lost in the cold autumn countryside -- with half of England hunting them down, after a rumor spreads that they're infected with a dread disease being exploited in the ``national defense'' section of the lab.

Adams tells much of their story through the dogs themselves, who can't figure out why they deserve such inhuman treatment from humankind. He also veers into the world of men and women, with sharp satires of scientific self-importance and journalistic jaundice, among other targets. His book culminates in a touching conclusion that whisks the heroes to happiness -- a fantasy ending, as the author freely points out, but one that sweetly clears the air after all the horrors we've been through.

Rosen streamlines the tale, concentrating on the dogs so singlemindedly that the humans hardly show up at all. While this strips the plot of many deeper implications, it has the virtue of simplicity, focusing all energy on the sympathetic main characters and the injustices they suffer. By dealing mostly with talking, thinking animals as traditional cartoons do, but putting them into strange and harsh circumstances, the film also hammers home its differences from Disney-style animations and their refusal to face real-world problems except in disguised and symbolic form.

The movie has problems. The dogs talk too much like people (as in the novel) and sound too much like British actors. They move too much like people, too. And it's too bad the filmmakers don't try to capture the book's nuances, settling for the basic plot and a handful of the most obvious philosophical points.

Worst of all, while it's likely that no movie could replicate the book's inventive ending, Rosen's finale is extremely wan, and more upsetting -- in terms of our involvement with the characters -- than he might have realized.

``The Plague Dogs'' is still the most intelligent movie cartoon in ages, though, with ideas to match its careful drawing style and smooth use of high-tech devices, including the ``multiplane'' effects that didn't come off well in Rosen's last film. It's a useful reminder that animation has both intellectually and visually sophisticated uses.

Though movies of this caliber usually have prompt engagements in New York, which is regarded as the major US launching pad for films, ``The Plague Dogs'' started its travels on the West Coast, where it received some strong reviews. It had its New York bow this month at the Film Forum, where it runs through Jan. 22 and may move on to further runs if reception is enthusiastic enough.

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