In the wrong hands, this could have been an overly-wrought sentimentalisation of the relationship between dog and man. I did fear initially that this could be an exploitative attempt to encourage X Factor like displays of distress with dogs as an incidental hook.
However, whilst there are times when it veers towards the lachrymose, it is for the most part a touching look at the ways in which man’s best friend earns that title.
Borrowing a tactic popular in romantic comedies, director Vanessa Engle uses dogs to engineer unplanned introductions to their owners and as a means to ask probing questions about the role their pet plays in their lives.
Well known for her acclaimed series Money (2011), as well as Women (2010) and Jews (2008), which were both nominated for British Documentary Awards, Engle in this one-off film has taken the deceptively simple matter of dog ownership and turned it into a way to gain insight into the human condition.
Filmed on Hampstead Heath over a number of months, tonight’s Wonderland explores the relationships people form with their four-legged friends. From everyday companionship, assistance with spiritual outreach and providing a diversion from the pressures of taking care of a sick husband, the dogs are shown providing vital support to their owners as they meander their way through the Heath and life.
As any dog owner knows, on your daily walk it is quite possible to encounter the broad spectrum of humanity and with that diversity comes a range of stories – from the unconventional to the charming and – in some cases – almost catastrophic and it is this narrative which carries the show forward enjoyably.
Dogs, unlike humans wear their emotions nakedly, and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretence. On occasion, in their unguarded moments, the people featured allow us to see their basic selves without dissimulation. It is this innocence which holds the show together and allows it to be compassionately endearing.