Isle of Dogs [Review by CLGJr]
Wes Anderson’s consistency is at once his calling card and the reason for, in some circles, agitated backlash. He will construct worlds out of Futura-fonted title cards and fastidiously chosen color schemes. Orchestras will compete with hipster staples for soundtrack dominance. An omniscient narrator will provide clinical commentary. And, yes, there will be Bill. Nothing about this formula has changed for his ninth studio release, “Isle of Dogs,” and yet something has. Wes Anderson got woke.
The film opens with an ancient myth of canine woe in Megasaki, Japan. Dogs once roamed freely but were brought to heel (good boy) by their human masters. Cats became the preferred domestic companion, replacing their mortal enemies on everything from tapestries to government logos. In an indeterminate but dystopian future era, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has taken the draconian step of banishing all dogs to Trash Island, an archipelago with landscaping that needs no additional explanation. The ostensible causes for the mass exodus are snout fever and dog flu, yet Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) is probably one experiment away from developing a cure. Kobayashi, undeterred, sacrifices his household’s own Spots (Liev Schreiber) as the first deportee.
Months pass, and the mayor’s ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) commandeers a small plane to Trash Island in search of his beloved companion. A crash landing catches the attention of an alpha pack whose owners must have worn only Ed Hardy t-shirts and distressed denim. Bryan Cranston takes lead voice honors as the stray Chief, whose gang also includes former domestics Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Mr. Murray), and Duke (a marvelous Jeff Goldblum). Outnumbered by his still-obedient mates, Chief begrudgingly joins Atari’s expedition to find Spots.
The action, which covers a prologue and four parts, cuts between that journey and developments back in Megasaki, mediated frequently by Courtney B. Vance’s voiceover. Mayor Kobayashi amplifies his authoritarian inclinations, continuing to stoke dog-related anxieties ahead of a re-election campaign. He nods to democratic norms, though, allowing Watanabe’s opposition party a voice only to snuff it out using an untraceable Putinesque maneuver. Meanwhile, the island search party encounters numerous vestiges of civilization abandoned and experimental horrors before—and this is no spoiler—finding Spots. (Other, far more interesting surprises lie in store.)
Anderson’s previous stop-motion offering, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” suggested that he might be an even more visionary animated artist than live action director. “Isle” confirms it. What scans as annoyingly twee with flesh and blood actors can only enchant in this medium. Anderson coaxes unimaginable beauty out of windswept dog fur, a beatific aura surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg when she meets Chief, and cotton ball clouds that accompany the many dog-on-dog (and dog-on-robot) tussles. Aardman Animations guru Tristan Oliver supplies the technical wizardry that sucks the audience into this alien but utterly believable world. And Alexandre Desplat flexes unusually percussive muscles with his score.
Some of Anderson’s most vocal detractors have accused him of gross cultural appropriation and disparagement. From Pagoda in “The Royal Tenenbaums” to, well, all of “The Darjeeling Limited,” they charge him of sending up accents, dress, and general otherness for mockery. Some elements of “Isle of Dogs” will not quiet those critics. Japanese-inflected pronunciation of English words and the rapid-fire ire of Kobayashi’s right-hand, Major-Domo (Akira Takayama), dangerously skirt the line of propriety. But Anderson seems to have listened. The main human characters speak in Japanese without subtitles unless real-time interpreters or crawling translations happen to exist in the world of the film. Only the canines are native Anglophones.
What’s more, the screenplay, based on a story credited to Nomura, Anderson, and his recurring collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, unquestionably takes aim at political tragedies past and present. Mere allusion to Japanese internment camps or Mexican removals wasn’t sufficient. Rather, the plot examines the brainwashing lure of state-sponsored fear-mongering, the power of resistance movements (from a group of teens that wouldn’t be out of place in Parkland), and the destructive role of caste and social hierarchy. If this all sounds too heavy for animated Anderson, it doesn’t play out as such on the screen. For once, he has channeled his grab bag of visual delights toward a tale that resonates both in his dream world and in our own often depressingly real one. A film like “Isle of Dogs” was easily marketable with its four-legged protagonists and an embarrassingly deep voice roster. (I haven’t even mentioned F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Greta Gerwig, and Frances McDormand.) Its deeper themes shouldn’t make for an easy sell. Somehow, though, Anderson has produced what might not be his best but certainly his most complete work. I wouldn’t suggest that he devote himself to politically engaged cinema for the rest of his career. But it’s inarguably a better look for Anderson than his natty suits and scarves ever will be.
CLGJr Verdict: A treasure-filled allegory that delights the visual and cerebral senses. Wes Anderson has distinguished himself as a leading light in animated feature filmmaking. Sit and stay.
Isle of Dogs opened in limited release on Friday, March 23 and will appear widely in theaters on Friday, April 6.
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