Set in a rural environs outside the fictional town of Raupo in New Zealand, the film centers on sheep and cattle farmer Wal Footrot (John Clarke) and his border collie sheepdog named Dog (Peter Rowley). Wal is assisted on his farm, Footrot Flats, by his nature-loving neighbour Cooch Windgrass (Peter Hayden), local boy Rangi Jones (Rawiri Paratene) and Wal's niece Pongo Footrot (Fiona Samuel). Wal and Cooch are menaced by their unpleasant neighbours, the Murphys, comprising patriarch Irish (Peter Hayden) and his two sons Spit (Brian Sergent) and Hunk (Marshall Napier), who attempt to steal Cooch's deer and stag.
When the Murphys buzz Wal's shearing shed from their "deer slayer" helicopter, Dog is stampeded into a sheep dip and starts to drown, prompting a flashback sequence in which he recalls being given as a puppy to Wal by Aunt Dolly (Dorothy McKegg), and first meeting his future girlfriend Jess.
Wal's two non-farming preoccupations are his girlfriend, local hairdresser Cheeky Hobson (Fiona Samuel), and impressing a selector for New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks. Dog opposes Wal's relationship with Cheeky, but has problems of his own when Jess is swept away in a flood and ends up at the Murphys' farm, where she is threatened by rats and ferocious "croco-pigs". Dog saves Jess from the rats, but the two dogs are then hunted by Irish Murphy. Rangi is desperate to get Wal away from a rugby game and over to the Murphys' farm. Dog and Jess end up floating out toward the sea on a raft with the fearless cat Horse, who has been shot by Irish. Rangi and Wal manage to rescue Jess, but Dog and Horse are swept out to sea. Wal, Rangi, Pongo, Cooch and Jess rush to the beach but cannot see Dog or Horse. The two are given up for dead, before surfing in on a giant wave that dumps them ashore.John Clarke as Wal Footrot
Peter Rowley as Dog
Rawiri Paratene as Rangi
Fiona Samuel as Cheeky Hobson/Pongo
Peter Hayden as Irish Murphy/Cooch Windgrass
Dorothy McKegg as Aunt Dolly
Billy T. James as Pawai
Brian Sergent as Spit Murphy
Marshall Napier as Hunk Murphy
Michael Haigh as The Rugby Commentator
Irish-born filmmaker Pat Cox, who had moved to New Zealand in 1973, was an early fan of the Footrot Flats comic strip and felt it would make a good animated film. In 1981, he contacted Murray Ball and suggested the comic be made into a feature-length movie. The two later met and began working on a story. Ball's cartoonist friend Tom Scott was called in to co-write the script. Cox initially had trouble obtaining financing before securing funding from newspaper group INL. He then teamed up with New Zealand producer John Barnett, who convinced merchant bankers Fay, Richwhite to underwrite the film.
Animation director Robbert Smit was brought on to ensure the look was right. A major challenge facing the producers was to get the voice casting right so that audiences who had created their own voices for the characters through the comic strip would not be disappointed. This was tackled by employing a cast of New Zealand's top comedy talent at the time.
On January 21, 1986, it was announced the film would be released in cinemas on April 9, 1986, with Murray Ball as director, while John Barnett and Pat Cox would produce it through a company called Magpie Productions Ltd. Dave Dobbyn, who was living in Sydney at the time, was invited to compose the music.
On March 28, 1986, it was announced that John Clarke would play Wal Footrot. Peter Rowley was cast as Dog, Rawiri Paratene as Rangi, Fiona Samuel as Cheeky Hobson and Pongo, Peter Hayden as Irish Murphy and Cooch Windgrass, Dorothy McKegg as Aunt Dolly, Billy T. James as Pawai, Brian Sergent as Spit Murphy, Marshall Napier as Hunk Murphy and Michael Haigh as The Rugby Commentator.
Production took place in Wellington, New Zealand, and Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Kerridge-Odeon acquired distribution rights to the film.
New Zealand musician Dave Dobbyn scored the music for the film and its soundtrack. The soundtrack's first single, "Slice of Heaven" (featuring Herbs), topped the charts in New Zealand and Australia.. A second single, "You Oughta Be in Love", reached number 2 in New Zealand. The soundtrack also contains "Let's Get Canine" performed by Dobbyn, Betty-Anne Monga and Ardijah, "I Dream of Rugby" performed by Dobbyn and Sacred Heart College Choir, "Vernon the Vermin" performed by Dobbyn and Ardijah, and "Nuclear Waste" performed by Dobbyn and Herbs.
The film was a smash hit in New Zealand and Australia, with The New Zealand Herald giving it a four and a half stars out of five and The Australian giving it four out of five. Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale grossed $2,500,000 at the New Zealand box office (making it one of the most successful local films of the 1980s). In Australia it grossed $4,317,000 at the box office, making it the most successful animated film in Australia, a position it held until Disney's The Lion King in 1994. When Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale screened in Los Angeles, California, in 1987, Charles Solomon gave it two and a half stars out of four. "The raunchy humour," he said, "may surprise American audiences accustomed to the sanitized jokes of Saturday-morning kidvid."
The film received a limited re-release in New Zealand cinemas in 2011, at which time co-producer John Barnett ruled out the possibility of a sequel, saying the time had passed.
Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale was released on VHS in October 1986. It was later released on DVD on 9 April 2004 for its 18th anniversary. It was re-released on DVD and for the first time on Blu-ray on 12 January 2011.