"But does the dog die?" I ask with earnest, savaging the pause button the moment a fine lil' pupper (or heckin' big doggo) appears to be in potential peril on the small screen. If you're like me, one of the greatest challenges of the big screen is the distinct lack of a pause button. There is no way to halt the demise of my fluffy favourites. As a result, I have witnessed my share of doggy demise. A burdened shared is a burden halved so I thought it best to share with you my top 5 moments of furry heartbreak. These tragedies are in no particular order: they all involve 4 paws, sadness and spoilers (admittedly from long ago) so proceed with caution!
1. Samantha in I Am Legend (2007)
This post-apocalyptic horror, based on the 1954 novel of the same name, sees Will Smith in the role of Robert Neville, a military virologist and last man in New York City. Although the film itself is resoundingly just above average, Smith's performance is compelling throughout and his four-legged companion, a German Shepherd named Sam, provides the perfect partner for Smith to play off.
The bond portrayed between man and dog who have been through three years of hell, surviving in a city overrun with the deadly Darkseekers is palpable from the word go. Sam's constant presence at Neville's side is further charged with emotion as we come to learn she was left with Neville as protection by his very young (now very dead) daughter. Given the love Neville, and very quickly the audience, feels for Sam it is unsurprising that she falls foul of a Darkseeker dog's bite and tragically succumbs to her wounds while cradled in Neville's arms. Unsurprising, but painful nonetheless.
Salt is quickly applied to the wound of her death as she returns, now an infected Darkseeker, and her loving master is forced to choke the undead life out of his best friend and only link to his deceased child.
2. Marley in Marley & Me (2008)
If you're a fan of well-behaved, Crufts-worthy pups then look away now. Marley & Me is the true, heart-warming tale of writer Josh Grogan (Owen Wilson) and his chaotic Golden Labrador, Marley. This movie snuggles up close with its subjects as the audience is invited to enjoy every thrill and spill of life for Grogan and his wife Jen (Jennifer Aniston) with this manic whirlwind of a mutt.
Admittedly, some elements of this movie have not aged well. The idea that Grogan's wife feels the pressure to leave her more successful career to mother "properly" leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Luckily, Marley's escapades remain as entertaining on the fifteenth viewing as the first. Similarly, the heartbreak that comes from the final moments of this movie is just as intense every time. A very different breed of sorrow to that which accompanies the tragedy in I Am Legend, the moment when Marley's well-lived life gently ends will have even the stiffest upper lip quivering. You were a great dog, Marley.
3. Dewey in Eight Below (2006)
Eight Below is a Disney remake of the 1983 movie Antarctica which in turn was inspired by the true events of the 1958 Japanese Antarctic expedition. At its roots a classic man-and-his-dog story, the plot follows a heroic band of sled dogs stranded in the cruel ravages of a monstrous snow storm while their handler, played by the late Paul Walker, strives to rescue them. While the movie itself has some basic issues, too protracted for children but with a script too infantile for older audiences to not find cringe-inducing, the canine stars manage to steal the show and our hearts in a wag of the tail.
Each dog has an individual, endearing personality and they entertain from the offset, playing with their human companions and participating in daring rescues. After the dogs are tied up and abandoned to the elements, events rapidly take a turn for the tragic. Perhaps it best sums up the woes of this movie from a canine-lover's perspective that when Old Jack is too weary to break his chain and hunt for food this isn't the saddest moment. I repeat, a faithful old dog lying down and waiting for the sweet embrace of death is not the height of tragedy.
Instead, Disney waits. Only once we are lulled into a false sense of security do they go for the emotional jugular. The seven dogs that managed to liberate themselves frolic under the delights of the Northern Lights and all seems well. Until, that is, a single paw in the wrong place sends one poor pup fatally tumbling down a cliff and your heart falls with him. The knife is only twisted as his mourning pack (including his inconsolable twin) gather round and bed down with his little broken body for the night.
4. Skip in My Dog Skip (2000)
A movie of my childhood, My Dog Skip is an excellent example of a coming of age story told right. Much of its delight lies in the heartwarming performances delivered by the adorable duo of little Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz) and his four-legged companion, a Jack Russell Terrier called Skip. It's easy for an audience to find joy and also pause for thought as they watch an only child and his only dog navigate the variety of life from the perils of growing up to the consequences of war.
Much like Marley, there is no tragedy that cuts short Skip's life. He passes away in peace, quiet and comfort as an old boy. What will have viewers convinced someone must be chopping onions nearby is that he does so alone. Willie has since left for university and only learns of Skip's death later. Of course, distance has only made the heart fonder and Willie's last fond words given through voice over will easily remain with an audience beyond the credits rolling.
5. Hachiko in Hachi: A Dog's Story (2009)
Another tale based in truth, Hachi tells the story of a little Akita Inu found by a kindly college professor named Parker Wilson (Richard Gere) on a train platform. The pup, named Hachiko (Hachi for short) shows his gratitude to his rescuer in the form of unwavering loyalty. He walks his master to the same platform from which he was rescued every day and patiently waits for his return.
The heartbreak begins on the day when Parker does not return, having unexpectedly died at work. Hachi's loyalty does not die with Parker. He continues to return to the platform each day to wait for his master, never giving up on the man he loves so completely. As the wise Josh Billings once said, 'A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself'. These are clearly words Hachi lives by. He continues this soul-destroying routine for ten years and eventually passes away alone in the snow, dreaming of the moment his person will walk through the doors of the train station once again. I'm not crying, you're crying.
The real life Hachi's everlasting devotion has been rewarded with a beautiful statue at Shibuya station where the true events took place.
So there it is. If you fear your heart has recently been turned to stone, grab a box of tissues, give one of these flicks a whirl and your concerns will quickly be put to rest. Think you've seen worse? Pay tribute to your favourite tragic woofers in the comment section!
Who s your favorite on screen doggo?