Director: Charlene Dunlap
Stars: Stoney, April, Sam and Molly
Index: Weird Wednesdays.
This week’s Weird Wednesday review isn’t remotely horrific, sexual or inappropriate in any way and I just hope that you won’t be too disappointed. However it is certainly weird, at least to me, because Charlene Dunlap didn’t just make one movie about dogs played by real dogs, but at least ten of them, according to her website, Canine Horizons, right up to the newest, The Whisperwood Arsonist, in which JD and Sydney, a pair of doggy detectives, solve the mystery of the arsonist who lights ‘suspicious fires on Whisperwood Lane’. In fact, that’s even a sequel, to The Theft of the Rothchild Ruby. Those films only run ten minutes or so and are available to view on YouTube, but this one, with its cuteness overload title, runs past thirty and is only available on DVD. There are five such half hour shorts for sale at Canine Horizons and I’ll be covering two of them for this week’s Weird Wednesday, starting with this one, which does at least have a plot and a three act structure. I’m still not quite sure what the other one has.
Dunlap is a dog lover, first and foremost, given how the variety of material on her website descends all the way to poodle limericks and cartoons, but a dog trainer not far after that. There’s nothing strange in that and she certainly seems like a very nice lady who cares very much for her animals and trains them to the best of her ability with patience. I don’t doubt that, based on what I see here. What I doubt is her sanity, because she seems utterly sincere in reading her dogs bedtime stories. At least when her fellow human co-actor, Lynn Franklin, answers the phone, realises it’s one of Charlene’s poodles and promptly hands it to her own, saying, ‘It’s for you, Sam,’ she does so with a knowing air to her, as if she’s playing along for the sake of the film. Charlene, who wrote, directed and edited, doesn’t seem to acknowledge any weirdness here at all. Her clear lack of acting ability doesn’t help, because we know inherently that the character we see is the character she is, simply because she can’t pretend not to be.
At least there’s an actual story here, if we can get past all the weirdness. Charlene has two poodles and she reads them stories at bedtime. Apparently, the favourite of both Stoney and April is The Fuzzy Fairy and we get to hear at least the gist of it as an introduction. It features Melody, a well-mannered poodle, who finds a fairy in her garden with invisible wings. It’s a mischievous creature, who likes doing things like knocking over the birdbath, and, because human beings can’t see fairies, Melody gets blamed. This does end happily, but I blinked and lost how that happened. It was that sort of story. Anyway, the key is that dogs can see fairies, who cause trouble without any chance of being caught because people can’t see them. Guess where our film is going to go, given that Charlene has brought home a magic trick set because she wants to build a routine around it for the local Dog Talent Show. If you can’t conjure up the rest of the plot, you really aren’t paying attention.
Yes, April takes the wand which Charlene left conveniently hanging off the table for her, waves it around and, hey, there’s a dog fairy played by Molly, who seriously gets an ‘introducing’ credit at the beginning as if she’s already signed by a major studio and booked to co-star with Vin Diesel in her next picture. At least she could out-act him too. Sure, Molly’s a mischevious little dog fairy, though she teleports around with a reasonable sparkly effect rather than flying around on invisible wings. I was hoping for that, but it clearly wasn’t anywhere in the budget to be found. Most of the rest of the movie revolves around Stoney and April finding themselves in all sorts of trouble, for which they’re never punished in the slightest, and trying to find a way out of it by using the cool techniques they learned during training, like calling in the cavalry and taking a Polaroid of the little monster knocking coloured toilet rolls off the counter. To show the depth of humour here, they’re even taken to Dr Q T Wags, dog psychologist. Actually I liked that.
I found The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale pretty awful, both as a story and a film, but I wasn’t bored while it ran through its half hour. The story is wildly predictable but it’s decent enough for a very young audience. Canine Horizons claims that these films are for ‘both children and adults who love dogs,’ but I find it hard to believe that many adults would get anything out of this except a sense of surreal wonder about what goes through Charlene Dunlap’s mind on a daily basis. At least she has the modesty to know she’s being out-acted by a pair of poodles; what’s odd is that she still thinks it’s a good idea to train the critters in very specific ways and put them to work in ‘professional quality movies complete with music, sound effects, and entertaining stories’. I use quotes there because the quality, music and sound effects are roughly what you’d expect from a GeoCities site in 1998. Then again, this was made in 2000, so that may be what Canine Horizons looked like back then. I should consult the Wayback Machine.
If it’s decent as a story, it’s pretty awful as a film. The editing leaps out for most disdain, because there are so many wasted opportunities to show off the skills of these dogs, which was surely the whole point of making the movie to begin with. Yes, we see all four animals in the story doing tricks, but they’re set up horribly. Instead of using long takes to demonstrate how clever the creatures are, we get fast cuts to the moment of truth. If April can ring a doorbell when asked, then let’s see a single take from command to ring, not a cut to her paw on the bell. I got the impression from some of Dunlap’s stumbled dialogue that she just wasn’t interested in multiple takes; her work was in training the dogs to begin with, so the film should just be shot quickly and edited together to make it seem as real as possible. Given that she also apparently has no problem with using not one but three separate wah wah waaah sound effects, I have no real investment in her ability to make good judgement calls.
There are no dogs in my house right now, but I do have a library ferret and, frankly, I’m finding it tough work training him not to do some of the things that Dunlap has trained her dogs to do in this film. I have to say that Dunlap’s house looks pretty neat and tidy so I presume that training Molly to climb up on the kitchen counter and push cereal bowls onto the floor hasn’t backfired yet. Sneakily sliding books under ottomans seems safe enough, but I ask you: if you had mad dog training skills, would you train any dog who lives in your house to climb up on a chair and put your car keys into a cup of coffee? At least she’s able to train dogs and I have to grudgingly admit that I was impressed by what she did with the three of hers who dominate proceedings. I just wish she (or Glenn Dunlap, who handles the camera) had similar skills at filmmaking. The editing during the magic show practice is worse than Georges Méliès was doing a century and more ago. And this tells me that I’ve fallen into this film far too far and need to escape.
Let’s just leave The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale bemused at the idea of a dog trainer making films (plural) without any apparent knowledge of filmmaking technique beyond pointing a camera in the right direction. Let’s leave shocked at the realisation that the whole point is to showcase the tricks that these dogs have learned but which was apparently forgotten once that camera was switched on. Let’s leave in the knowledge that the best actors on screen are canine, even though two of their persons share a host of scenes (a dog’s owner here is not called ‘an owner’ but ‘its person’). Let’s leave in the understanding that there are four more of these half hour films out there, including ones in which the leading doggies don’t have banal names like Molly and Sam but spaced out hippie ones like Cherdon Moon Dancer and Myramagic Wizard of Ahhs. Let’s leave in the knowledge that at least this contains no dream sequence poodle poetry from Charlene Dunlap, presumably ‘doggerel’ in more ways than one. But let’s leave.