Nello (voiced by Brady Bluhm), a poor but hardworking Flemish orphan boy, loves to draw and is inspired by the work of the great artist Rubens to become a painter. Nello's devoted companion is Patrasche, a dog he rescued from an abusive master and nursed back to health. Together boy and dog run errands around town and help Nello's Grandpa (Robert Loggia) tend the farm, often aided by their closest friend Alois (Debi Derryberry). Sadly, Alois' prosperous and bigoted father (Michael McConnohie) does not want his daughter associating with a lowly orphan boy and tries his best to keep them apart. When Grandpa's health takes a turn for the worse, Nello sets his sights on winning an art contest in the hope that the prize money will save their lives.
Don't let those cheerful chara designs by Yasuji Mori and pretty pastel colours fool you. The Dog of Flanders ranks among the most emotionally devastating viewing experiences of all time; comparable only with Isao Takahata's similarly heart-wrenching war orphan drama Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Its nineteenth century source novel, written by Anglo-French author Marie-Louise de la Ramée under the Flemish pseudonym Oui’da Sebestyen, has been adapted several times by Hollywood from the silent era to 1999. Yet none of those versions had quite the same impact in America and Europe that the 1975 anime television serial did in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines where it remains a much cherished weepie. Twenty-two years later veteran animator Yoshio Kuroda, director of the original serial, returned with this lavish feature length treatment.
Buoyed by state-of-the-art visuals, including a climax that makes transcendent use of early computer graphics, and an uplifting orchestral score by Taro Iwashiro, this handsome, meticulously researched and crafted production was released stateside with a high caliber English dub featuring stellar voice talent. These include gravel-voiced character actor Robert Loggia and Blade Runner (1982) star Sean Young as an older Alois who appears in scenes bookending the main narrative. Loggia is especially good, dredging vast reservoirs of emotion despite a relatively brief amount of screen-time, although the standout remains Brady Bluhm who plays every note of Nello's tragic decline pitch-perfectly.
Japanese animation has a rich legacy of adapting classic European children’s literature. It is one upheld by both of Kuroda's treatments of this affecting tale. His team of animators bring the nineteenth century Flemish setting vividly to life in richly intricate detail. Yet, as mentioned before, the lush beauty of the film’s pastel hued visuals belie the story’s despairing tone. Things start out bad for poor Nello and Patrasche and get progressively worse. While the story casts its child and canine protagonists to the whims of an array of alarmingly implacable, curmudgeonly grownups - from Alois' stubborn social climbing father to the nakedly self-serving and vindictive landlord - it also makes clear that the real villain is a social structure fueled by bigotry and class prejudice. While Ramée/Sebestyen was lacerating the heartlessness of nineteenth century Europe, Japanese viewers both in 1975 and beyond recognized similar flaws in their own rigidly hierarchical social structure. As such The Dog of Flanders serves as a fable urging new generations to stave off a world where the strong bully the weak and suffer no consequences.
Rather than simply wallow in misery, the film is also an ode to the transcendent power of art. Nello's motivation to become a true artist is a desire admittedly hindered by his lowly status yet one so pure it ultimately enables him to transcend whatever cruel injustice fate or society slings his way. Indeed the finale hinges on an art debate as to whether technique is more valuable than the ability to touch the soul. Fittingly the final sequence does precisely that with its magical evocation of Rubens' The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross, moving Nello, Patrasche and the viewer to tears.