Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale, made in 1986, was New Zealand's first animated feature film, developed from Murray Ball's widely syndicated newspaper cartoon Footrot Flats.
The strip is told from the wry perspective of ‘Dog', a nameless border collie adopted by a farmer, Wal. It follows Wal's bumbling rural adventures running a farm on Footrot Flats: lusting after the bulging hairdresser Cheeky Hobson, whitebaiting with his greenie neighbour, Cooch, being terrorised by the Murphy Brothers and daydreaming of becoming an All Black.
In 1981 Murray Ball was approached by producer Pat Cox, who had the idea of making a movie from the strip. Ball was eventually won over, and over the ensuing years writer Tom Scott came on board to work with Ball on the script, while Cox joined forces with John Barnett to get the project financed and off the ground.
Through his work making commercials, Cox knew Sydney animator Robbert Smit, who, as animation director, would be crucial in getting the look and animation right. As a faithful (if leisurely) record of the inhabitants of Footrot Flats, it is undeniably accurate.
It's great to see the world of Footrot Flats given such affectionate attention. Like John Clarke's Fred Dagg (Clarke provides the voice for Wal), the world of the comic strip played off nostalgic stereotypes that, even at the time of screening, were more fond myth than the reality of an urbanised, multicultural New Zealand. Here are the cabbage trees and paddocks of the flats, rusting corrugated iron etc. To see these familiar landscapes animated rather than photographed postcard-style was something new for audiences.
For the makers there was an inherent challenge with converting a mute, black and white strip from the daily paper into a talking feature. Murray had always expressed Dog's thoughts in thought-bubbles and gave Dog alter egos, but in the end he was always just a dog. Readers of Footrot Flats would have formed their own ‘voices' for the characters. So the task of adapting the characters to the screen and remaining true to how readers imagined them, was a tough one.
But the voices for the characters were a starting line-up of New Zealand comedy and acting talent of the time, and audiences suspended disbelief and enjoyed the recognisable repartee. Other than Clarke, the cast includes Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Fiona Samuel, Peter Hayden, Dorothy McKegg, Billy T James, and Brian Sergent.
There are some shortcomings: the film's soundscape, despite some classic original songs from Dave Dobbyn, feels sparse; and the script's narrative reflects input from energetic individuals coming at the project from differing experiences. But the laconic, finding-humour-in-adversity spirit of the comic strip remains; the film leveraged the large comic strip readership to attract big audiences on both sides of the ditch.
Footrot took $2.5 million at the local box office, making it the most successsful local feature of the 1980s. It was also a rare Kiwi feature to win wide release in Australia (60 prints). Dobbyn created two huge hits for the soundtrack: 'You Oughta Be in Love' and 'Slice of Heaven', the latter alongside band Herbs. 'Slice of Heaven' spent four weeks atop the Australian singles chart in 1987, and became known as the unofficial New Zealand national anthem.
Successful commercials producer Pat Cox would go on to make the iconic Speights "onya mate" and Mainland Cheese ads. In Footrot Flats he was mining the same golden weather territory. Six years in development, 15 months in the making, Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale brought Murray Ball's world to a new audience; its popular success was just reward for Cox's tenacity.
- Tony Hiles spent a decade working for state television, before setting up company City Associates with partner Judith Fyfe. Since then he has directed documentaries on everything from architects to flying contraptions, and an extended series of films on artist Michael Smither.