Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs

2018, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Wes Anderson. Voices by Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Ito, Greta Gerwig, Akira Takayama, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Courtney B. Vance, Yoko Ono, Harvey Keitel.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 23, 2018

Wes Anderson is arguably at his best when he can create his bitter-tasting cotton-candy worlds down to the last hopscotch line drawn on the pavement. His characters are so dreamlike that to place them in the real world would seem absurd. So to have a stop-motion realm is definitive Anderson.

Meet his new pack: five dogs, left to fend for themselves. There’s Boss (Murray), Duke (Goldblum), and King (Balaban), with tension between resident outsider Chief (Cranston, channeling a variant of the affable surliness that served him so well in Last Flag Flying), and their de facto not-leader Rex (Norton). He is not actually in charge, because this is a democracy, but the other three always agree with his proposals, and Chief, even as he votes nay, goes with the pack. That includes when the young pilot Atari (Rankin) drops out of the sky in search of his own abducted pet, Spots. Rex proposes they help reunite dog and human, and off they go on a dangerous quest across the most sumptuous and symmetrical trash heap you ever saw.

Of course, this being Anderson, there must be more than just some Journey of Natty Gann antics. In a near-future, not-quite-real Japan, dogs have been banished to Trash Island: nominally because of diseases, but really because of an ancient feud between dogs and the cat-loving Kobayashi clan, who have been secretly manipulating the political life of Megasaki for centuries so that they can finally rid the city of all hounds, great and small. This is where Anderson’s fable flies. It is beautiful, lyrical, tragic, redemptive, and focused down to the last tick on a dog’s nose. His animated characters have all the grace, quirk, and charm of any live-action performance. His conceits – such as having every dog speak English, but the humans speak in unsubtitled Japanese, but all delivered in his signature drawing room murmur – never seem like gimmicks. Instead, they allow him to convey deeper, warmer, simpler emotional truths about loyalty and love.

While this is clearly Anderson's world, full credit should also go to animation director Mark Waring (who served as Anderson’s animation supervisor on Fantastic Mr. Fox). Anderson has referenced ubiquitous holiday stop-motion mainstays Rankin/Bass as his animation North Star, but it's hard not to see the influences of Japanese animation innovators like Tadahito Mochinaga or Tadanari Okamoto (not least since, closing this trans-Pacific loop of influences, Mochinaga became a Rankin/Bass regular).

Moreover, the character design is just far enough from photorealistic that Anderson can push from almost-lifelike (Atari and his distant uncle Mayor Kobayashi) to Anderson-esque exaggerated realism (Gerwig as American exchange student Tracy Walker, with a puffball haircut), to fully grotesque (Akira Takayama as Kobayashi’s stilt-legged and greasy-green-skinned Major Domo). There’s a softness to the figures, in opposition to the rubbery or ceramic finishes popular among many American stop-motion creators post-The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it only enhances the quirk-queasiness of Anderson’s world.

What’s odd is that, while Fantastic Mr. Fox was adapted from a Roald Dahl book, the film version was a little softer than most of the British author’s razor-edged fancies. In this original script, Anderson seems to catch that sense of community and anarchism that marked Dahl, and his lesser-known but equally charming peer, J.P. Martin. And Anderson’s story is that now trademarkable mix of whimsy, mournfulness, and occasional bursts of morbidity. Death is a very real threat, mentioned in saddened tones as an inevitability, and don’t expect even the king of stop-motion grim, Tim Burton, to feature graphic kidney surgery in his next film. Yet somehow Anderson’s deep-rooted sense of subtle wonder means that even wasabi poisoning or killer robots never seem upsetting or ill-fitted to the mood.

It could be that Anderson has written a fable about the relationship between dog and humanity, with added resonance about the value of focused youthful rebellion. Or it could just be that he just wanted to say that, no matter what the circumstance, there’s something noble and wonderful about Canis lupus familiaris. Even the ones that bite, or with snuffly noses, or dog flu.

In short, they’re all good dogs, Wes.

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