Richard Adams's novel 'The Plague Dogs' always stood in the shadow of his superior masterpiece - the classic 'Watership Down'. The same goes for the animated films, both of them directed by Martin Rosen. The animated version of The Plague Dogs, released four years after the acclaimed Watership Down, never quite achieved the kind of success its predecessor had; not because it wasn't as good, but because of pretty much the same reasons for the novel's limited success. While Watership Down hid violence and severe social-political criticism behind a disguise of a children's tale, The Plague Dogs is much more in-your-face, much less subtle, and makes no attempts to hide itself behind pretty words. The Plague Dogs is a tragic tale that is mercilessly critical toward modern society, taking a strict stand on the subject of cruelty to animals. The idea of an animated film strictly for adults was as difficult to swallow twenty years ago as the idea of a novel for adults told from an animal's point of view. Therefore, movie-goers didn't quite know what to make of the film; it didn't seem right for an adult to go watch an animated film about animals - and a parent who takes his little child to this film would face an even bigger problem of explaining to them why the bad people do such horrible things to the poor dogs.
Fortunately, today we know that animation isn't just for kids, and we can fully appreciate this masterpiece. The story is that of two laboratory dogs, voiced brilliantly by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin, who escape from their cages and from the lab seeking the freedom of the outside world, and finding out that surviving in the wilderness isn't as easy as that. The scientists have reason to believe that the dogs contacted a bubonic plague virus during their escape, and so the two must run for their lives and fight for survival. Most of the film is from the dogs' point of view (they are later joined by a fox, voiced by James Bolam, who helps them survive in the wild, not without his own reasons). On the other hand we also hear the humans' conversations, yet we never see a human being's face; Rosen doesn't allow us to sympathize or identify with any of the human characters. The animals are clearly the more humane here, and that's the basis of what Rosen and Adams say here.
Be warned - don't let the animation fool you, this is not an easy watch. The violence in The Plague Dogs is more explicit than in most live action films, and the message it bears about human beings as a whole is difficult to swallow. John Hurt's performance as Snitter, alternately funny and sad, dominates the film, and it makes for one of the most beautiful and round animated characters ever seen on film. The story, especially that of Snitter's, is incredibly sad and touching, and is more powerful emotionally than any other animated feature I've seen. A highly recommended film, and not just for animation enthusiasts.