Streaming: the best films about dogs

Our canine companions have long been an inspiration to auteurs and sentimental film-makers alike

Britain, we’re told, has recently reached “peak dog”. With many of us housebound in the past year, it has seemed the ideal time to adopt a dog – prompting a lot of “for life, not just for Covid” messaging from anxious animal shelters. If you’ve felt the urge for some canine companionship but just don’t feel ready to commit, the movies have you covered — the vicarious subgenre of cinéma du chien is a rich and varied one.

It also gets a fine new entry this week (streamable on Amazon) in Elizabeth Lo’s lovely dogumentary Stray, a moving but notably unsentimental study of Istanbul’s street dogs — a sort of bookend to the same city’s cat-centred travelogue Kedi some years ago, albeit from a different filmmaker. Filming over the course of three years, and eschewing dialogue or voiceover, Lo’s film thoughtfully observes the movements and survival strategies of a population once threatened and now protected by law. Yet when the dogs attach themselves to a group of homeless Syrian refugees, Stray tacitly invites viewers to evaluate their own sympathies.

Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 classic Umberto D
Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 classic Umberto D. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a strong tradition of films in which dogs and people co-exist on the margins of society, beginning with Vittorio De Sica’s immortal neo-realist heartbreaker Umberto D (on Mubi), in which a scraggly terrier is all a destitute pensioner in postwar Rome has to live for. It has an American spiritual sibling in Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite nomad portrait Wendy and Lucy (oddly hard to find online, though available to fortunate Kanopy subscribers), in which a penniless drifter’s search for her lost mongrel culminates in one of the most wrenchingly bittersweet conclusions in all cinema. (It’s akin to watching Lassie Come Home — itself reassuringly available on Chili — in shattering reverse.)

Others in the hard-edged vein include Amores Perros (Amazon Prime), the kinetic Mexico City triptych of wounded people and maltreated mutts that remains Alejandro González Iñárittu’s best film. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s astonishing White God (on Rakuten) brings pavement-level grit to a wild, surreal vision of a city-wide canine uprising; it’s not to be confused with Samuel Fuller’s White Do

g (on YouTube), a crisp, disturbing allegory of socially programmed racism with a dog’s-eye view. Sounder (on Vimeo) rarely gets its due as one of the greatest films of the 1970s New Hollywood wave: a simple, piercing, Depression-era portrait of a Black sharecropper family and the dog that binds them — featuring a monumental performance from the recently departed Cicely Tyson.

Sounder is, in effect, the starker, social realist answer to Old Yeller, Disney’s more homespun farm-dog saga that many an American remembers with very moist eyes, even if it’s less of a childhood staple over here. It’s on Disney+, which naturally offers a barking buffet of more sweetly family friendly dog stories, from such animated standbys as Lady and the Tramp (stick with the 1950s original rather than the bland recent remake), 101 Dalmatians and The Fox and the Hound (the first film I remember seeing in the cinema, and weepily so). There’s also Tim Burton’s pleasingly eccentric stop-motion dog-horror Frankenweenie, and the live action derring-do of The Incredible Journey, plus Disney’s defanged but enjoyable 1991 version of Jack London’s White Fang.

My Dog Tulip
‘Peak dog’: My Dog Tulip. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on cartoon dogs: Netflix has a recent, gorgeously animated French adaptation of White Fang that is a shade truer to London’s text. Martin Rosen’s film of Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs (Microsoft Store) never found the same following as his Watership Down, though it’s impressively visceral and emphatically not for kids. Not that all animated dog stories for grownups have to be bleak or violent. Featuring marvellous voice work by the late Christopher Plummer, the quirky, hand-drawn My Dog Tulip (on Amazon) adapts the British writer JR Ackerley’s witty memoir of his late-life love story with an assertive German shepherd with such aching tenderness that even the most avowed dog-agnostics will wipe away a tear. If a film can reach “peak dog”, this might be the one.

Also new on DVD and streaming

Tina Turner in the doc Tina
Tina Turner. Photograph: Altitude Film Entertainment/Sky UK Ltd

Tina

(NowTV)
Tina Turner was overdue for the expansive documentary treatment afforded many a comparable rock legend, and this polished effort from Oscar-winning directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin delivers, covering her rise to stardom from rural poverty and her battle with spousal abuse en route to solo icon status. It’s not reinventing any wheels, but the performance footage alone is worth it.

Six Minutes to Midnight

(Sky Cinema)
Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench lend a modicum of class to a cloak-and-dagger potboiler set on the eve of the second world war, probing strange goings-on at an English finishing school attended by multiple daughters of high-ranking Nazis. It’s mildly diverting, but never rises above the aesthetic level of teatime TV.

Soul

(Disney)
For those who aren’t Disney+ subscribers, Pixar’s latest elaborate flight of imagination is now available on regular VOD and DVD. Like their beloved Inside Out, this story of a jazz musician stranded between life and death builds a neat, even ingenious fantastical story world through which to negotiate complex existential concepts. I found it a little short on warmth, but it’s quite a feat.

A sene from Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But
A sene from Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But. Photograph: EPA

I Was at Home, But...

(Arrow)
German experimental filmmaker Angela Schanelec is much revered in festival circles but hasn’t received much exposure in UK cinemas. Out on Blu-ray, her most recent film won her a directing prize at Berlin, and is accessible by her standards – a relative measure for a teasingly fragmented tableau of family discontent, as elliptical as it is wistfully beautiful.

Contributor

Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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