The time was right to give Yoshio Kuroda's Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu [The Dog of Flanders] another spin. It's been ages since I last watched the film and late 2016 a brand-new statue dedicated to the memory of Nello and Patrasche was revealed right in front of Antwerp's cathedral. A perfect excuse to revisit this tragic story, on top of that I was also pretty eager to find out how well Kuroda's version had held up over time. Luckily the film didn't disappoint.
The original book was written by Ouida, a 19th century British novelist. The story is set in Flanders, but never really got much love over here until a popular comic book series (Spike and Suzy - Suske & Wiske in Dutch) picked it up and rewrote history to include its main set of characters. More importantly though, the Japanese heard of the tale and fell in love with its premise. Nowadays just about everyone who ever attended school in Japan knows the story of Nello and Patrasche by heart.
There's a Japanese animated series that dates back to the 70s, Kuroda's film is best seen as a modernization of that series. This explains why the art style looks a little outdated (think Candy Candy or Spoon Obasan), but underneath that simple exterior lies a very tragic and touching story, so don't let its innocent looks fool you. The story and execution put The Dog of Flanders firmly into Watership Down and Hotaru no Haka territory. While those films enjoy broad recognition though, The Dog of Flanders's lack of general availability has made it way more obscure.
The plot of the film stays pretty close to the original. Nello is a young boy who lives with his grandfather on a farm. He is best friends with Aloise, but she was born into a rich family and Aloise's dad doesn't like Nello hanging out with her. Things take a turn for the worse when Nello's grandfather is forced to pay off Nello's dog Patrasche, a setback that leaves the two with little money to survive. Not long after Nello's grandfather falls ill, putting the burden of survival on the shoulders of Nello and his faithful dog.
The simplistic character art takes a while to get used to, but 30 minutes in I hardly noticed it anymore. For a feature film it looks pretty bare and basic, luckily The Dog of Flanders is helped by its more elaborate background art and a pretty decent level of animation. The animation in particular helps to bring the characters to life. It may not be as in-your-face or detailed as your average Disney feature, but it does capture the actions and emotions with surprising subtlety. Sadly the ending features some very out of place (and technically limited) CG. There's only one such scene, but it does happen smack in the middle of the emotional payoff. A strange decision maybe, but I guess that's just a sign of the 90s.
The soundtrack is rather present and can be a little sentimental at times. It walks a fine line between emotional and sappy, but never overreaches. Your mileage may vary of course. If you demand absolute subtlety from a drama soundtrack, then the music will no doubt be a bit too much, but all in all there are way worse offenders out there. The dub is a little trickier. The film is set in Antwerp, so you'd think a Dutch dub would make sense here. Sadly Dutch/Flemish subs are quite atrocious and to add insult to injury, they even changed the names of the characters to Martijn and Marieke. There's also an American dub out there, which makes no sense at all, and then there's of course the original Japanese dub. While it's a tad weird to hear Belgian characters speak Japanese, it's by far the best dub and in combination with the art style it's probably the sanest option available. Finding the Japanese dub with English subs will be quite the challenge though.
The story of Nello and Patrasche is incredibly sad. Very little goes right for the boy and his dog and when luck is finally on their side there's always standing something in the way. The outcome of the story is inevitable and knowing what is to come actually makes repeated viewings more depressing. The strength of this film lies in the sweet and innocent portrayal of Nello and the love he shares with his dog Patrasche. There's not much complexity there, but it does feel extremely genuine and truthful. This setup was very deliberate too, as is illustrated by the way Kuroda worked this reasoning into the plot itself. It's not quite often that you see a film arguing its own choices within its own narrative.
Ideally I would advise against watching a Dutch or English dub, but if you're able to stomach it this film is just too rare and too beautiful to pass up simply because a Japanese dub isn't readily available. The character art takes a little getting used to, but lush background art, smart animation and a good score make up for that. And when you strip all that away, what remains is a very touching, very dear yet very sad story about a boy that got a lot less out of life than he deserved. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you can watch this film, make sure you do.