Wednesday, August 12, 2015

R.I.P. Uggie (2002-2015)

Uggie with Jean Dujardin
In 2011, there was a reason to love canines. It seemed like they were everywhere from indie films (Beginners) to animation (The Adventures of Tintin). However, there weren't any that swept the zeitgeist quite like that of Uggie: the little Jack Russell Terrier from director Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. Besides the film winning Best Picture, Uggie became the talk of the town, appearing nonstop over the next few years at public events (and even the Oscars ceremony). He even had an autobiography, which (according to the internet) he wrote himself. He was a dog with phenomenal talent that unfortunately was euthanized yesterday at the age of 12. He may not have had the most prolific screen presence, but he did make the most the most of his brief time in films.

There are few cynics out there who likely take the name Uggie to be slang for "Ugh! Him again." It is debatable on if the media overexposed him. Yet, I think he did something rather phenomenal that isn't often reserved for animal actors: he was a household name. Even if he retired shortly after The Artist due to arthritis, audiences knew the name of this dog. It is an honor that only he bestows considering that few other Best Picture winners have a noteworthy animal co-star. Even if that's the case, it's in films like The Greatest Show on Earth, where they are incongruous to the actual plot. You see, Uggie's performance has a lot of clout because he was the central performer in The Artist - even then going above and beyond to impress audiences.

The complaint could be that his performance was too juvenile. However, I tend to fall into the camp that became epitomized in the Consider Uggie movement. Watch the highlight reel above and notice the physicality of the performance. He is able to fall over on cue. He creates comical moments that impact the film's silent production design. He realizes that it is all visual cues and uses them to the fullest effect of the medium. Even in the third act, he becomes more integral to the drama, managing to convey torment and anxiety as Jean Dujardin's character falls into a deep depression. Say what you will about the film, but few animal actors can strike a balance between dramatic and comical cues. This may be more of the director's job, but he did manage to turn an otherwise incomprehensible role into the heart of the film.

True, it does seem ridiculous to commemorate the passing of a dog as if he had a career on par with Peter O'Toole. However, I do believe that what Uggie did with The Artist reflected a certain progression of narrative that still hasn't been explored. Animals, in many ways, are more spiritual and can project our own emotions into their actions. While it would be enough for them to shake your hand or roll over, it is surreal to see one go above and beyond, choosing to act out emotional beats on cue. Much like decades ago with Miss Piggy in The Muppet Movie, Uggie made me believe momentarily that there should be a Best Animal Actor Oscar category since he legally couldn't compete against Nick Nolte (though both were equally intelligible). There hasn't been enough fodder to keep that debate alive. 

However, he has left behind a powerful film that is likely to be studied by those watching all Best Picture winners for years to come. They may look at the film and wonder who that dog is. They will laugh, potentially cry, and feel the same perplexity that I do. It may even be stronger with the media removed from the equation. Who knows. The fact that his passing has sparked a lot of love online is a testament to his gifts. He may be the least prolific of the central cast, but he will always be the most memorable not because he was just a gimmick, but a proper tool in the film's structure. We cared about Dujardin because of that dog, barking by his side and highlighting the appeal of dog actors the likes haven't been seen since the days of Lassie

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