Retro Review: “Footrot Flats”

Over the weekend, the world was informed of the sad loss of satirist and cartoonist Murray Ball, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s at the age of 78. A native of New Zealand, Ball’s numerous works were published in Australia, Britain and Scandinavia, but it’s his daily comic strip Footrot Flats for which he is best recognised.

Footrot Flats poster
The original release poster for 1986’s Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tail Tale

No other comic strip was able to better reflect Kiwi life than Footrot Flats. Following the exploits of a sheepdog named Dog and his cantankerous owner “Wal” Footrot, its witty, insightful and charming tales made it the most popular strip at home and across “The Ditch”. At the height of its popularity came The Dog’s Tale, the first and (to date) only animated feature film to be made in New Zealand.

Beginning with a typical day on Footrot’s farm, the characters are properly introduced via a flashback which sees Aunt Dolly (Dorothy McKegg) gift her nephew Wal (John Clarke) with a new puppy. Wal christens his new pup Dog (much to the animal’s delight) and shows him to his makeshift kennel – a dilapidated water tank on the edge of the property. Their bond is cemented after Dog, having run away the night before, sees Wal sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of losing his new friend.

This is just one of the many subplots in Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale. The closest resemblance to a “main story” comes from the conflict between the protagonists and the neighbouring Murphys. One evening, during a particularly heavy downpour, the Murphys steal the prized stag of Wal’s next-door neighbour and best mate Cooch (Peter Hayden). Yet this conflict doesn’t arrive until halfway through the film’s runtime – before then, there’s a subplot involving Wal’s date with long-time admirer Cheeky (Fiona Samuel) and another about an All Blacks selector coming to town.

This plethora of plots means that The Dog’s Tale lacks focus, moving from one narrative to another like, well, a sheepdog in a flock of sheep. This problem is exacerbated by the extremely short runtime which, at just 70 minutes including credits, doesn’t give the audience enough time to enjoy the picture. What the plot desperately needs is a greater source of conflict, or an adventure on a grander scale. Perhaps a trip overseas would make things more interesting? Or Auckland, even?

Much of the humour in the Footrot Flats comic strips came from the slightly strange, but mundane, situations in which the characters found themselves in. The movie, meanwhile, opts for slapstick gags which, while still funny, don’t reflect what Murray Ball is capable of. And that’s very odd, given that Ball co-wrote and directed this very film. The All Blacks subplot in particular is a missed opportunity – what if Wal WAS selected as an All Black, and had to play in the national team? The comedic possibilities would be endless.

Footrot Flats - Pongo, Rangi
A still from Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, featuring Dog, Wal, Pongo and Rangi.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the comics though, is the charm. Each character’s personality is wonderfully captured by the voice cast, particularly Peter Rowley as the thoughts of Dog – remember, dogs can’t speak. John Clarke as Wal does take some getting used to, but very soon makes the role his own. The animation, while not at Hollywood-levels of quality, does capture the aesthetics of the strip, with some beautiful background art of New Zealand’s scenery.

Remarkably, the most enjoyable aspect of The Dog’s Tale is the soundtrack. Its songs are written and sung by Dave Dobbyn, another native New Zealander who is treasured by his home-nation (though I suspect he’s loved ironically, much like Australia’s Daryl Braithwaite). The film spawned the hit single “Slice of Heaven”, which has been declared New Zealand’s “unofficial” second national anthem, but for me the better song is the love ballad “You Oughta Be in Love”, in which Wal declares his love for Cheeky.

For those looking at an introduction to Murray Ball’s work, Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale is not the best place to start – only those familiar with the source material will be able to fully appreciate what it offers. Thankfully, the film retains the timeless charm of the comic strips, while also offering a great soundtrack and some decent laughs.

3 stars

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