Director Lasse Hallström didn't used to be mainstream Hollywood. Before he directed audience favorites like 'Chocolat' and 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' he made the best movie of his career. 'My Life as a Dog' is the story of a misunderstood little boy named Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius). Trouble with his mother's health causes him to get shipped off to an uncle's house where he meets new friends, discovers adventure, and finds himself.
Ingemar is a child who nowadays would be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He's awfully rambunctious and only focuses his attention on a few certain things. His dog is one of his obsessions. When Ingemar is shipped off he isn't allowed to take his dog with him. During his own narration Ingemar wonders aloud about a dog named Laika who was shot into space with a limited amount of food. It wasn't important to Ingemar that the dog furthered scientific work, and space exploration. He felt bad that the dog eventually starved to death. "It's important to compare," he says as he thinks about stories of people and animals that are much worse off than himself. A tiny kid, trying to keep perspective on life. Inegmar is smarter than people give him credit for.
'My Life as a Dog' has that patented Lasse Hallström whimsical feel to it. Ingemar dreams about the happier times, when his mother wasn't sick. He regrets not telling her the stories of his life, and feels bad about the times he made her yell and scream. Like any child Ingemar cherishes the time he can spend with his mother, but when perspective is gained he wishes he had been a better person.
There's so much going on in this film. Ingemar meets a whole cast of characters when he moves away to live with his uncle. Each character helps him learn and grow. He meets a tomboy named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who is trying desperately to hide the tell-tell signs of puberty. She wants to be known as a boy. She wants to play soccer with the other boys. Ingemar, being the naïvely sweet boy that he is sees nothing wrong with this and assists Saga by helping her hide her breasts. These kids aren't thinking about deviant things. They're simply innocent and curious about themselves and the changes their bodies are going through. While these scenes may indeed catch Americans off guard, they are never meant to be salacious or exploitative.
Included in this Criterion Edition of the movie is an essay from author Kurt Vonnegut entitled "A Sweet Operation." In the first paragraph Vonnegut is quoted as saying about the film, "['My Life as a Dog'] made me like life and human beings much more than I had ever done before." What a vote of confidence! It's true. This movie doesn't have a cynical, mean bone in its body. It's sincere about the coming of age of its adolescent characters. It treats them with respect. They think and understand much like adults do, but without the burdening pessimism that all-too-often pervades our adult attitudes.
The best part about 'My Life as a Dog' is that it doesn't conclude with a grand scene of conciliatory coming together. We don't get an overwhelming sense of cathartic feelings. We aren't met with clichéd happy endings. Instead Ingemar takes what he's learned from this town and the people that live in it and has learned to deal with the utterly horrible situations life has thrown at him. This isn't the end for Ingemar, rather it's the beginning. Taking these lessons he'll most likely grow up to be a well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky adult. Life has tried its hardest to pummel Ingemar into submission, but he's simply brushed aside the bad and decided to focus on the good.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Criterion edition of 'My Life as a Dog' comes to Blu-ray on a 50-GB disc and is packaged in Criterion's standard clear keepcase. The spine number is 178. Included with the disc is a 15-page booklet that contains all the information about the video and audio restoration. Film Critic Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice, gives his opinion of the movie in his essay entitled "Child's-Eye View." That's followed by Vonnegut's essay "A Sweet Operation," which was mentioned above.
I wasn't all that impressed with Criterion's 1080p transfer of 'My Life as a Dog.' It's a film from 1985, so I expected it to look aged, but the problems don't stop there. While there are some shots of striking clarity, there are also very murky, noisy shots peppered throughout the presentation.
First the good. Daytime scenes are full of color, wonderful contrast, and somewhat fine detail. I say somewhat because the movie, much like 'Chocolat' was noticeably filmed with a diffuse filter to give it a more dreamlike look. Diffusing the picture casts an inherent gauzy look that obscures some of the finer details we expect to see in high definition. I was impressed by a few scenes, notably when Ingemar is lying in the tunnel under the railroad tracks with his friend or when he runs through the junkyard directly after that. Those scenes are brilliantly colored. Edges are precise. Clarity is as good as it can be with the diffused look.
However, a good portion of this movie takes place at night and it's a different story then. Blacks are flat and crush any of the detail that might be there. Characters, objects, faces, they all get lost in the blackness. There are a few moments near the end – right before everyone goes into the house to watch the new TV – where a faint blue vertical stripe can be seen cutting down the left part of the picture. It's static and lightens the blacks to a very faint blue. Almost like an artifact that you'd see on a worn out VHS. There's a scene around the 58 minute mark which is especially noisy with white digital noise dancing around the edges of the screen. The film does have a thick, natural grain to it, but there are other scenes that are run rampant with extra noise which is distracting. Not one of Criterion's best outings.
The Swedish Monaural soundtrack provided is a better experience, but is constrained by its mono nature.
I was impressed with the clarity of the voices, and even when there was a lot of stuff happening at once, you could still hear all the voices involved. Sound effects were nicely represented from the billowing fires of the glassworks factory to the creaky pulley system of the make-shift spaceship. Even the faint tapping of Fransson's hammer as he tirelessly fixes his roof can be heard easily. Lower end sound is given ample room to work which is evidenced by the rushing boom of the train as it passes over the tunnel Ingemar and his friend are lying in. Hisses, cracks, and pops have been largely elimitaed from the design.
This is a mono track, so there isn't much to it, but it does the best it can with what it's given.
'My Life as a Dog' is a sweet, thoughtful film that truly mirrors the innocent curiosity of childhood. It's a refreshing take on a genre that so often includes crippling clichés, mean bullies, and tiny narcissists. Anton Glanzelius' performance is one of the best out there from a child actor. So many times he reminded me of Peter Billingsley from 'A Christmas Story.' His wry smile, his hidden smirks. If anything, watch it for him alone. Even though the video presentation leaves something to be desired, I can still recommend this Blu-ray based on the strength of the movie itself.