A Profound, Gentle, Beautiful Children's Cartoon--About a "Doggy Poo"
Doggy Poo is a tender story about a tender turd left behind on a country road. The poo chats with a bird, a clump of soil, a leaf, a chicken, and a dandelion before realizing his lifelong aspiration to become fertilizer.
Good, because underneath the admittedly bizarre premise of this Korean children’s cartoon lies a gentle, marvelous story about humility, purpose, patience and faith.
As the half-hour film opens, the doo has been freshly “done” by a canine on the side of a dirt road in rural Korea. A bird swoops down, and the poo greets it, but as soon as the bird realizes what it’s talking to, it flies off, crying, “A poo! How disgusting!” The poo is indignant and wonders if he really is disgusting. Meanwhile, a pile of soil has fallen off a passing oxcart. The soil ends up telling the poo about how he used to spend his time: growing potatoes on a farm. That day, he says, the farmer shoveled him into the cart and told him he would be used to build a house, but now he has fallen into the road and will be crushed by the next cart to pass by. The soil believes that his current misfortune stems from his hatred of the peppers that grew in him and took all his water in the previous summer drought. The peppers eventually died. The poo tries to tell the soil that it wasn’t his fault, but the soil is distraught and certain his end is near. When an oxcart finally does pull past, however, it is only the farmer, who collects his soil and takes it back to the farm. This exchange introduces into the poo’s mind the worry that will plague him for the rest of the story: he cannot see his purpose. It also introduces the reassurance of a resolution, as well as the spiritual side of the film, when the soil says his farewell and assures the poo that God would not have made him without a purpose.
The story continues in this fashion, with the stationary poo eventually meeting, as I mentioned, a leaf, a chicken, and a dandelion. The poo’s conversations and thoughts cover topics like death, fate, sacrifice, and ultimately rebirth, all in a very simple, gentle way that children are sure to understand. The poo is distraught to think that the leaf can only live one year and then must fly wherever the wind carries it, but the leaf is unconcerned, telling the poo that it is simply the nature of things. The chicken teases the poo by telling him she is considering him to feed her chicks. The poo takes her at her word and is prepared to give himself up if he can be useful, but she laughs and leaves him behind. However, the dandelion that sprouts up near him is genuine in her request for his help, and he gives himself to her completely so that she can become a flower.
While I cannot speak authoritatively about Korean children’s stories, Doggy Poo fits the archetype that I have come to expect from their Japanese counterparts, especially in its natural setting and emphasis on empathy over independent analysis and problem solving. The poo gradually comes to understand other characters’ points of view without judging them. The lump of soil and the leaf both compare their predicaments to the poo’s, and the chicken insists upon being given the respect due to the mother of five chicks. While the poo constantly worries about his lack of purpose, he does nothing to solve it nor does he even think about solving it on his own, instead waiting for solutions to come to him in the form of the chicken and the dandelion. This may seem foolish to some of us, formed as we were by the gung-ho, seize-the-day values of the American educational system, but there is great wisdom also in patiently observing and recognizing opportunities without falling into despair, and that is the lesson of Doggy Poo.
The other major motifs of the film are the beauty of nature and the implications of reincarnation in the natural cycle. At the climax of the film, the poo, who has been admiring the stars, asks the dandelion if the flower they will become is “as beautiful as the stars in the sky,” to which she replies, “Of course. It’s as beautiful as anything.” Nature is beautiful in its entirety. Even the poo is beautiful in the end. It is perhaps owing more than a little to its national origins that Doggy Poo manages to express the unity of the natural world and the idea of rebirth in a complete, appealing fashion rarely seen in more hackneyed American attempts like Fern Gully or even The Lion King.
The voices are exactly what one would expect from a children’s cartoon. The Korean voice of the poo is child-like, and though the nasal tone didn’t bother me I can see how others might find it irritating. The English version is, as expected, mostly caricatures of animal voices. The translation is excellent and matches the lip movements almost exactly at points. In fact, the voice recording for the film was somewhat novel: the fascinating making-of featurette included on the DVD seems to imply that the English voices were recorded prior to animation, as is customary in the U.S., but that the Korean voices were recorded afterward, the norm for Korean and Japanese productions. If so, this would explain the exact translation, but it would not account for some of the extremely awkward lines, except perhaps if the editor spoke no English. The soundtrack is mostly rather somnambular piano and strings with a song over the last section of the Korean version, which I would have liked to have seen subtitled but which unfortunately was not.
Doggy Poo is executed in the delicate form of stop-motion animation, and the first thing to leap out at the viewer is the care that went into some of the wide, landscape shots and into the backgrounds. Since nature could be called a character, even the main antagonist, in the film, detailed backgrounds were a must, and the animators rose to the occasion. The final shot, in which the poo has become the flying spores of the dandelion, is particularly beautiful.
Poo, if the making-of documentary is to be believed, is based on a classic of Korean children’s literature, written by a beloved Korean author in 1968. In fact, most native Koreans are apparently familiar with the story. After seeing the film, this didn’t surprise me. It is a brilliantly crafted, profound, and touching cartoon. I hope American parents will consider welcoming into their homes this gentle, spiritual gem from half a world away.