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Isle of Dogs
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by Peter Sobczynski

"What Is It, Boy—Trouble At The New Yorker Archives?"
4 stars

Wes Anderson has made better movies throughout his career than his latest effort, “Isle of Dogs,” but to the degree that it sets up and executes his admittedly singular artistic vision, it could well be the most overtly Wes Andersonish (or Andersonesque) film of his career. Needless to say, this can cut both ways. On the one hand, the oftentimes exquisite formal style, droll humor and eclectic casting moves that have fueled such great films as “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are all in full force here, often to utterly delightful effect. On the other hand, so is a certain attitude towards cultures outside of his own that, while maybe not teetering completely over into full-blown insensitivity, is pronounced enough to add a level of discomfort to the proceedings that is almost more troubling due to the fact that he doesn’t seem to have put much of any thought into how such material would play. The result is a film that is good and unique and entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation even though any such testimonial will inevitably require the deployment of a pretty big “but. . . “ at some point.

Set in the not-too-distant future, the film opens with the Japanese megapolis of Megasaki is in a panic as the massive dog population is overrun with the dreaded snout fever and dog flu. In response, the powerful Mayor Kobayashi (Konichi Nomura) decrees that for the sake of public health, every single dog in the city is to be banished to Trash Island, a nearby dumping ground whose name is fairly self-explanatory. To show that he means business, he goes so far as to make the official palace dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), is the very first one to be sent away. This may seem like a noble sacrifice on his part at first glance but, as we learns in a hilarious prologue, there is a grudge between Kobayashi’s ancestors and canines that stretches back to “before the Age of Obedience.”. Over the next few months, the dogs are left to fend for themselves while scrounging and fighting for scraps while their former owners and friends appear to have moved on to a dog-free existence.

One who has not moved on is Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is Kobayashi’s orphaned 12-year-old nephew. Determined to find and rescue his best friend, Atari steals a small biplane and ends up crashing it on Trash Island. There, he is found by a group of dogs—a friendly pack comprised of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), a surly lone wolf who refuses to serve any master or to become a mere pet—and once they determine why he is there, they (albeit reluctantly on Chief’s part) decide to set off in search of Spots. The ensuing trek includes a visit to a mystical oracle pug (voiced by Tilda Swinton because of course she does) and finds Atari and the dogs engage in a number of adventures in which (Spoiler Alert!) Chief improbably assumes the position of the boy’s best friend and helps to engineer an effort to free the dogs from their plight and return to civilization.

At first blush, “Isle of Dogs” may sound a little goofy, as if Anderson, in his second feature-length excursion into stop-motion animation, is just doing a silly riff on the kind of filming that has made Pixar the current top dog—no pun intended—in the animation field. It soon proves to be much more than that and there are times when it might be the most endearing thing that Anderson has created to date. Even if you are not much of a dog person, you will still find yourself completely taken in by this film’s version of the standard boy-and-his-dog template, a riff that manages to be both hilariously funny and genuinely touching at times. The voices of the dogs are perfectly cast—Murray and Goldblum seem to be having a contest to see who can deliver the droller line readings (Goldblum wins but it is really close) while Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, playing a former show do named Nutmeg, have a flirtation scene that is so expertly written and performed that it deserves comparison to the famous bookstore sequence between Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Malone in “The Big Sleep.” From a purely cinematic standpoint, the film is a marvel as well—the deliberately precise pacing Anderson employs will remind many viewers of the films of such revered Japanese filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu while the contributions of production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod and composer Alexandre Desplat will dazzle the eyes and the ears in equal measure. Based on these elements, I would have no problem recommending it wholeheartedly to viewers of all age (with the exception of very young kids, who will no doubt like the doggie antics but who might also grow restless from the slower pacing and get a little freaked out during some of the more intense moments.

Alas, there is a little more to “Isle of Dogs” than all that and this is where it becomes more than a little problematic. In the past, Anderson has gotten some knocks for a certain lack of diversity in regards to his stories and his casts and other have suggested that his attitude towards foreign cultures is also a bit troubling in the sense that he either ignores them completely or looks at them merely as additional bits of quirkiness that he can add to the stew. Not only is that the case here, Anderson at times seems to be going out of his way to swim deeper into those potentially troubling waters with questionable results. His depiction of Japan seems to have been cherry-picked entirely from his collection of Criterion blu-rays with little bearing on reality—since this is supposed to be a bit of a fairy tale, I suppose that this can be forgiven. There is a more troubling moment when Chief makes his final transition from a troublemaking loner to a steadfast-but-true good dog when Akira gives him a bath that washes away all the black dirt that has covered him up to that point and he emerges with a lovely snowy-white coat—it sounds funny in theory, I suppose (his version of the racially charged Darth Vader joke in “Chasing Amy”), but in practice, it will no doubt raise a few eyebrows.

The sketchiest section of the movie, however, involves the character of Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student from Cincinnati who senses that there is more to the dog flu story and is determined to get to the bottom of it, partly out of love for her own lost pet and partly out of a crush she develops towards Akira. In other words, it is the lone American character who is upset enough to dig deeper into the story, uncover a massive conspiracy and spur the apathetic throngs into action to rise up against Kobayashi and demand justice for their pets. This section reaches its nadir when Tracy accosts Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono (voiced, perhaps inevitably, by Yoko Ono) and demands information on a possible dog flu cure, a move that spurs the doctor into action in a way that the highly suspicious death of her colleague evidently couldn’t. The sheer oddity of watching a scene in a movie featuring stop-motion animation characters voiced by the likes of Gerwig and Ono is amusing at first but as the full implications of what is being shown sink in, it goes from odd to off-putting and it is made all the worse by the completely offhanded nature of the scene—the fact that Anderson at no point considered the implications of the scene (or heard objections to it from others and simply dismissed them entirely) is actually kind of disturbing.

And yet, despite the reservations inspired by those particular issues, I still find myself feeling fondly enough towards “Isle of Dogs” to still recommend it, even to those like me who are not exactly dog people. It is smart, funny, sweet and strange and features one scene after another in which the frame is stuffed to bursting with an array of visual delights. In other words, it is a Wes Anderson film through and through and another generally impressive entry in one of the most cheerfully idiosyncratic filmographies of our time. Yes, there are a number of highly questionable elements on display that might temper the enthusiasm of some viewers but hopefully the criticism that has been leveled toward them on many fronts will inspire Anderson to do better next time and avoid such potentially offensive. If not, maybe it will at least inspire one of his collaborators to smack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and give him a stern “No!”

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originally posted: 03/27/18 07:13:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.

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  23-Mar-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Jul-2018


  DVD: 17-Jul-2018

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