‘Isle of Dogs’: Wes Anderson finds beauty in exiled pups, sick but soulful
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“All barks have been rendered into English.” – Opening title card in the Japan-set “Isle of Dogs.”
From “Bottle Rocket” to “Rushmore,” from “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” from “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” few filmmakers can match the creativity and unique artistic vision of the writer-director Wes Anderson.
Even fewer come across as more arch and self-congratulatory. At times Anderson’s style is so wry and so clever, with his characters speaking as if they’re in a J.D. Salinger short story, we half-expect him to show up at the end of a scene and say, “Ta-da!”
While wearing a cape and winking at us.
Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” is in keeping with that signature borderline-smug style, but it’s also pretty great. In fact, it might very well win the Academy Award for best animated feature of 2018.
This film finds great beauty in seemingly ugly settings. It features some of the best voice-work acting in recent memory. It delivers political and social commentary without making us feel we’re being lectured (for the most part). It’s smart and different and sometimes deliberately odd and really funny — rarely in a laugh-out-loud way, more in a smile-and-nod-I-get-the-joke kind of way.
In other words, it’s a Wes Anderson movie.
“Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s second stop-motion animated film (after “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), and it is a work of stunning visual achievement. Every scene, every frame, holds you in its spell.
The story is nutso, but here goes.
In the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, in the near future, the ruthless dictator mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), has banished all dogs, ostensibly out of concerns that outbreaks of “snout fever” and “dog flu” will spread to the human population.
Every dog in the city is quarantined on Trash Island, a terrible and horrifying garbage dump where thousands of diseased, starving, mottled, desperate dogs fight for scraps of rotten food.
So yes, the heroes in “Isle of Dogs” are pups with open sores, wild eyes, near-skeletal features and seriously mangy coats. That’s probably not going to translate to heavy merchandise sales, but Anderson and his team of animators wisely highlight the soulful eyes of the dogs, reminding us that beneath the tattered exteriors, man’s best and most loyal friend is still there.
Bryan Cranston voices Chief, a former stray and street-fighter who admits he’s a biter and can’t be trusted. Edward Norton is Rex, the most level-headed pup of the bunch. Jeff Goldblum is a hoot as Duke, a gossipy pooch always repeating rumors about what’s happening on Trash Island. Bob Balaban is King, who was a celebrity back in the day as the star of dog food commercials. Bill Murray is Boss, the former mascot of a baseball team.
Life on Trash Island is like life in any prison: mundane and soul-deadening and awful.
Until the moment when a makeshift plane piloted by 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands on the island.
Atari has risked all to find and rescue his dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber). After much deliberation, Rex and his cohorts decide to help Atari.
Meanwhile, back in the city of Megasaki, a scientist (Ken Watanabe) has discovered a serum that will cure all the dogs — but the dog-hating mayor doesn’t want to save them, so that’s a problem.
What ensues is a rousing adventure, with some genuinely moving character revelations, some wonderful thrill-ride action pieces and more than a few tears-inducing moments.
By far the worst and most cringe-inducing character in the film is Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student who investigates the cover-up and leads the protest movement against Mayor Kobayashi. This white girl, with her giant blond Afro, seems superfluous and condescending.
I believe Anderson intended “Isle of Dogs” as an homage to Japanese culture, with the references to haiku, the films of Kurosawa, sumo wrestling, taiko drummers, et al. I think it’s a lovely film. Some critics, including the esteemed and talented and respected Justin Chang, have raised legitimate and serious questions about the film and whether Anderson has engaged in cultural appropriation.
It’s not my place to render a judgment on that issue. My sincere take on the film is that it’s a sly and sweet and smart homage to dogs, who at their darkest moments are still pretty great, and we humans are lucky to have ’em around.
Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Wed Anderson. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and some violent images). Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.