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Friday, 17 March 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale (RIP Murray Ball)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Murray Ball.

Cast: (voices of) John Clarke, Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Fiona Samuel, Peter Hayden, Dorothy McKegg, Billy T. James, Brian Sergent, Marshall Napier, Michael Haigh.

Pets should rarely be kept in the fridge.

America had Charles M Schulz and Peanuts, France had Goscinny & Uderzo and Asterix, and New Zealand had Murray Ball and Footrot Flats.

As representations of their respective nations, each is telling. Peanuts was a good cross-section of American post-war society when it began in the 1950s, ranging from the ultimate example of "nice guys finish last" in its downtrodden hero Charlie Brown through to the dumb bully Lucy, who is constantly keeping the everyman down.

Meanwhile Asterix emerged less than 15 years after WWII, as France was continuing to reclaim its identity and rebuild, having suffered the indignity of the invading Nazis. Hence it throws back to a time when a group of "indomitable Gauls" hold out against the all-conquering Romans.

And New Zealand had Wal Footrot and Dog. In the wit of Ball and his characters lay a prime example of rural Kiwi (and Aussie for that matter) humour. New Zealand farming was predominantly more modern than Ball depicted it to be circa 1980, but it spoke to a certain romanticism for the land, and in a country with a population the size of NZ's, it seemed just about everyone had relatives who lived on a farm, so almost everyone had an understanding of what Ball was banging on about. Like Australia, New Zealand rode on the sheep's back, and Footrot Flats was a proud portrayal of the strugglers who shore that back in between weekends of playing rugby (or footy or cricket) and heading into town for fish and chips.

When Ball's comic strip hit the silver screen, every man and his dog (ahem) turned out to see it in New Zealand (it was a box office hit in Australia too). Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale was the first Kiwi feature-length animated film and held the record for being the most successful local movie at the NZ box office from 1986 through to 1994's Once Were Warriors.

Some of this success is down to its all-ages appeal - families drove long distances to see this film, making rare trips to town for it. Much of its humour is of the slapstick variety, whether it be a goose's attempts to bite Wal "on the prickle" (actually his butt, despite what you might be thinking) or Dog's attempts at heroism. It's all very Looney Tunes in places, right down to the unnecessary "comedy" sound effects.

As well as being kid-friendly (although there are plenty of terrifying things about the Murphy farm, notably the crocopigs and the rat leader Vernon), it had a fair bit for the grown-ups. Wal's dream sequence about becoming an All Black features some choice moments, while his ill-fated date with Cheeky Hobson is great and includes a weird moment where Wal pries baked beans from out of Cheeky's bosom. In spite of (or because of) its weird moments, it's funny for all ages. It should also be noted that John Clarke was an inspired choice to voice Wal Footrot, who wasn't a million miles away from his iconic NZ cross-media character Fred Dagg. Clarke joked at the time that the casting call was out of himself, John Gielgud and Meryl Streep, but he got the role because he had a shorter commute.

As director, Ball was reportedly meticulous, ensuring the animators got his style just right. His perfectionist streak paid off because the film looks like his comic strips come to life, with the added bonus of Richard Zaloudek's sublime backdrops, which give the film a surrealist edge due to their impressionistic qualities.

Equally surreal is Dave Dobbyn's score. Dobbyn, who took on the gig after Tim Finn turned it down, excels as much as he stumbles. Parts of the score haven't aged well, worst of all being a couple of songs that turn the cartoon into a musical (the tracks Let's Get Canine and Vernon The Vermin). But beyond those are the absolute gold of You Oughta Be In Love and, of course, this:

This was my little brother's favourite movie growing up and rewatching it 30 years on, it's not hard to see why. As farmer's sons, it spoke to our sense of reality - there's nothing Disneyfied or sanitised here. Dog eats dags, is nearly shat on by a sheep, and almost drowns in the sheep dip, all within the first few minutes. This was real farming, but it was a cartoon.

It has aged badly in places, but Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale is a wonderful snapshot of what the comics captured and why Murray Ball was not only a national hero in NZ, but also an icon to farming communities all around Australia. For all it's slapstick silliness, it's a fantastically pacy and enjoyable piece of rural '80s nostalgia.

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