There is a universality to animation which has otherwise been lost since the arrival of sound in film. It doesn’t matter what nation made the film when we are watching are constructed images; the common act of amorphization often meaning there are even fewer ways of distinguishing culture, and Disney long ago proved that cultural appropriation can be an effective tool. With a quick redubbing by voice actors in each language, it can be easy for an animated film to be accepted as essentially nationless. A Dog’s Courage (translated as Underdog from the original South Korean title), on the other hand, provides a narrative that is distinct in its representation of a precise place, however universal the overlaying canine storyline may be.
This particular story of dog companionship begins with a searing look at irresponsible pet ownership, rivaling The Lion King (1994) as one of the saddest film openings of all time. In fact, save a few exceptions, the humans represented in this film are far from sympathetic in their treatment of man’s best friend. If you can imagine the flip side of Oliver & Company (1988), it would be this film. When Jacob is abandoned by his owner in the woods, he must discover a way to survive on his own. Luckily, he quickly comes across a pack of stray dogs who have all suffered the same fate as his own. Together, they evade an evil dogcatcher while seeking out a place of peace for themselves.
In some essential ways, A Dog’s Courage carries on that tradition of ambiguity, still dubbed seamlessly in English from the original language, the narrative is distinctly Korean. What makes this so unique, is that the North/South division, the Korean War, and the DMZ play a major part in the plot of A Dog’s Courage, while none of these things are directly referenced. Not only is it significant to the story itself, but there are many thematic connections in the representations of walls, borders, and the discovery of commonality with those on the other side of them.
The first representation of this is presented with the discovery of a fence that separates civilization from the forest. When Jacob wanders into the woods, he finds that there are wild dogs who survive by hunting. Though they are hesitant to trust each other, circumstances force the two groups of canines together in a journey to find a spot of freedom. This leads them to the only place they know of without humans, and it happens to be the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. That there still exist two villages existing peacefully in this area between warring nations is a testament to the allegory central to the narrative. And it is because of these themes that this South Korean film was also chosen to be screened in North Korea as part of the South Korea-North Korea film exchange program.
A Dog’s Courage has plenty of humor and an inevitable optimistic ending, but it is also filled with far more intense sequences than most animated films. The tone is lighter, but the stakes are not much different than Watership Down (1978). There is a rather large group of dogs at the beginning of the journey, but younger audiences may not be equipped to handle how many fewer there are by the end.
The Blu-ray release of A Dog’s Courage doesn’t come with many extras, beyond the English dubbing. The original Korean-language audio is also available. What makes the Blu-ray worthwhile is the high definition presentation of the hand drawn animation.
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 7/10
Special Features: 1/10