Footrot Flats: An Okay Cartoon

When writing about anything, it’s easy to discuss works that you love to pieces or cannot stand, because the feelings they spark are so passionate that articulating them comes fairly naturally. (Most of the time, anyway.) It’s infinitely trickier to write about something that doesn’t spark much passion, where the only feeling you can muster up is “eh, it’s okay”.

Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale is a cartoon where I’ve been struggling to think of more to say than “it’s okay”. I watched it on a whim one morning, having discovered it through a compilation of early animation by Jon McClenahan, and didn’t feel strongly one way or the other. Instead of figuring it wasn’t for me and leaving it at that, I kept wondering why I felt so apathetic but I couldn’t find the words or reasons.

I wouldn’t let it go and eventually decided that I’d try to write about that difficulty, along with the conclusions I eventually came to when I ended up watching the movie again some time later. 

I think it’s worthwhile exploring those difficulties. Discussing any work brings more awareness of it into the world, letting even just one person know it exists and possibly encouraging them to check it out. There’s a challenge that comes from trying to dig out thoughts from near-indifference, since it gives you new perspectives to consider. If nothing else, I feel I need to exorcise this articulative ghost or it’ll be haunting me forever.

So, let’s get this exorcising underway.

Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale is a feature-length adaption of the “Footrot Flats” comic strip that ran in New Zealand newspapers from 1979 to 1995, directed and co-written by the strip’s creator Murray Ball. It looks at life on a cattle and sheep farm run by Wal Footrot, along with his border-collie sheepdog (only ever referred to as “The Dog”), and their fellow farmers, friends and rivals.

The film has a notable place in New Zealand movie history, being the first feature-length cartoon it produced (though it’s worth mentioning that the actual animation was done in Australia). The pop music soundtrack composed by Dave Dobbyn also took on a life of its own, with the ending theme “Slice of Heaven” being such a hugely popular song that it’s considered something of an unofficial second national anthem for the country.

It might seem odd that such an honour and a legacy was granted to a film based on a newspaper strip, but Footrot Flats has historically been huge in New Zealand, to the point where it even saw a stage musical and a theme park made during its prime.

I wondered if my lack of interest was because I was missing something from that lack of awareness for the strip. Certainly, there’s some aspects that only make much sense if you’ve read the comic, like the scene where The Dog tries to stop Aunty Dolly from saying the unmentionably awful name she gave him (a running gag in the strips). The characters are shown just long enough to give you the general sense of their lives and nothing more, as if you were meant to know them already.

But that’s admittedly conjecture which doesn’t really hold up when looking at other strip adaptations. I’ve never read Peanuts, but A Boy Named Charlie Brown resonates perfectly in what it’s trying to get across regardless. There’s no reason to assume the Footrot Flats film couldn’t have managed something similar, when it is a work that will always be viewed by someone with no prior experience.

Perhaps it was more its depiction of New Zealand culture that stumped me, as I don’t live in New Zealand and my knowledge of their culture is pathetically narrow. (Seriously, as far as my experience is concerned, nothing exists beyond What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and a handful of Flight of the Conchords songs.) There could be plenty of in-jokes or ideas that don’t make much sense to a culturally ignorant 20-something living out in the Irish countryside.

Except that doesn’t work either. Because: 1) assuming any foreign culture to be impenetrably alien is such reductive, incurious gobshite, and 2) there’s plenty in Footrot Flats that did resonate in a way I normally didn’t expect unless I was experiencing something made closer to home. 

The subplot where Wal takes part in rugby tries to join the legendary All Blacks team, for example. It never explains why joining the All Blacks would be such a big deal, but since I’ve grown up around lifelong rugby fans, I know exactly why Wal and everyone else finds it so important. The fantasy sequence where Wal spectacularly plays the sport, flashing the classic V-sign (the UK equivalent of the middle finger) at the opposition while the commentator slags them off, ties into a dramatic kind of pettiness that you only get around passionate sports watchers. It’s just carrying a ball to one end of a field, but it’s viewed by those who care like a matter of life and death.

The world of the film also feels relatable, with much of the events taking place in shaggy countryside fields full of overgrown grass, cattle, and especially water following a torrential downpour midway through. This aspect is excellently conveyed by the movie’s stunning background art, utilizing sketchy inked lines drawn over almost impressionist paintings to create a grotty wilderness that feels lived in and alive. There’s a bleak kind of beauty that isn’t captured often in depictions of the country, and one that I often see every day so I appreciate that representation here.

Smaller details make me smile in the same way. The small high street where Wal picks up local hairdresser “Cheeky” Dobson for their date reminds me of the main street of a nearby town, Ballincollig. The chip van he eventually takes her to and the slap-up meal of chips, eggs, sausage and beans bring to mind the many times I’ve had similar meals. (This is also where I acknowledge I’m basically Wal because I find that meal genuinely delicious, while Cheeky is disgusted by the whole thing.)

It’s a film that’s down to earth and feels personable to me, so clearly all that supposed cultural baggage is a pure write-off. With that in mind, I then tried to look at Footrot Flats as a singular work and see if that brought up anything.

For a while, I wondered if the structure might’ve been why: the film is largely dominated by two plots (the aforementioned rugby plot, and one about the troublemaking Murphies stealing the prize stag off Wal’s neighbour), but it’s spread out through vignettes dealing with scenes that often do their own thing and then never come up again. The Dog being brought to the farm for the first time, the date with Cheeky, Wal’s prolonged rugby fantasy.

It makes for a narrative that rambles about, going from tangent to tangent before wrapping things up with an extended climactic sequence. That could possibly be seen as sloppy storytelling, but it also complements that down-to-earth nature I mentioned earlier on. Scenes carry on at their own pace, often managing to strike a decent balance between quiet bits of conversation and more boisterous comic setpieces to different degrees. I do think that the climax drags on for too long, but that’s not a problem with the somewhat episodic structure of the film. 

In reading up on the movie and the strip, I looked through a handful of contemporary reviews. One of them, a review written by R.J. Thompson and Sue Burnall for the May 1987 issue of Australian industry magazine Cinema Papers, said that the film ‘turned the strip into a film about humans who own animals’, when the strip had it the other way round. When I watched Footrot Flats again, that statement lingered in my head for some time, and then it finally clicked with me.

The reason I’m so indifferent to the movie is because I find The Dog to be the least enjoyable part of the whole affair. That Cinema Papers review is correct because most of the film’s focus is placed on Wal and the people in his life, whereas The Dog and the other farm animals get little to do outside of their specific scenes and the climax.

Characters like the tomcat named Horse or the older dog Major barely come up in the film unless they’re absolutely needed, and others like the pampered corgi Prince Charles and the weary ram Cecil are left out altogether. There are other characters from the strip that don’t make it into the film, but it’s the animal characters who suffer from being far more incidental than the humans.

The Dog gets a handful of scenes, and some of them can be fun – particularly when Jon McClenahan’s animating and the Dog is paired with Wal. His spoiling of Wal’s date with Cheeky is the highlight, but that’s about it. You only get the broadest sense of who he is from these scenes: a small dog that barks big yet is only really brave when it comes to the neighbour’s dog Jess. 

Wal on the other hand gets the bulk of the film’s entertaining vignettes. As well as the scenes I’ve already mentioned, I found myself charmed by his disgusting morning routine, his attempt to teach his farmhands rugby, and how he starts singing the love ballad “You Oughta Be In Love” to the confusion and embarrassment of passersby, among other moments. He and the other characters in the film tied to him feature more prominently, and so the work becomes notably weaker when it shifts away from them and towards The Dog for the climax.

Footrot Flats is a well-intentioned, well-made film with plenty to show for itself. It’s the kind of cozy, straightforward movie you can watch on a rainy day or an early morning, and have a reasonably good time. But as it goes on and tries to feature The Dog more prominently, I can feel the weight of those basic characterizations and lack of prior focus on the animals dragging the film down.

So much so that despite everything that I do appreciate about it, I can still only say “eh, it’s okay”.


The official Footrot Flats website, where you can read many strips and learn about the series –

A TV documentary on the making of the Footrot Flats movie (available on the FF website, but linked in this manner to make it easier to view) –

An unofficial YouTube upload of the Footrot Flats movie, sporting a KissCartoon logo in the top corner (this generation’s equivalent of the Unregistered HyperCam 2 watermark or the DivX logo) –

Special thanks to:

harryhenry from the World Animation Discord, for giving feedback on the article and informing me about the popularity of “Slice of Heaven”.

WHYx3, who created the Jon McClenahan animation reel that led me to watching the film and eventually writing this article.

Nobaddy, for reading through the article and giving feedback.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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