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Isle of Dogs

by on March 21, 2018
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This weird, whimsical and often wonderful concoction from writer/director Wes Anderson is his second step into stop-motion animation after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from 2009. A critical success but commercial flop, it intertwined Anderson’s sardonic, twee sensibilities with bright visuals and cuddly critters.

Having adored “Fox,” I had high hopes for “Dogs.” But it soon became clear after the opening minutes that we were in store for something decidedly different. Not awful, just… different.

Set against a Japanese backdrop in the fictional Prefecture of Kobayashi 20 years into the future, it’s about a city that has banished all its dogs to the distant island where they dump their trash. A 12-year-old, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), undertakes to rescue his beloved pet, Spots, instead falls in with a distaff crew of mutts, which sets off a whirlwind of adventure and political intrigue with Atari’s uncle, the mayor (Kunichi Nomura), as their nemesis.

(After his parents were killed, Atari was taken in by his “distant” uncle, one of the film’s running jokes.)

The canines all speak English (as translated from bark, an introductory scroll informs us) while the humans largely speak Japanese, usually without the benefit of subtitles or translation. So the proceedings often have a kabuki theater feel to them, aided by the percussion-heavy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, which employs traditional Japanese drums.

The dogs are all voiced by recognizable American actors, many of them Anderson favorites: Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand. Newbies to the Anderson troupe include Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston and Yoko Ono… yes, that Yoko.

The story starts out pretty simple, but grows increasingly complex. Atari crash-lands on the Isle of Trash (now renamed the Isle of Dogs), getting a propeller clutch stuck in his brain for his trouble. He’s taken in by a troupe of mutts, ostensibly led by Rex (Norton), though all critical decisions are put to a vote. They’re all former pets, except for Chief (Cranston), a mighty fighter with a surly attitude, especially toward humans.

“I bite,” he often growls.

They determine to help Atari find his long-lost pet, and set off to discover the unexplored mysteries of the island. Meanwhile, back on the mainland the mayor is accused by his scientist rival of various evil machinations, including manufacturing the “dog flu” and “snout fever” that served as the pretext to banish all the pooches in the first place. Tracy Walker (Gerwig), an exchange student from Ohio, rallies the student newspaper to take up the cause.

“Isle of Dogs” is an absolute visual marvel. Occasionally I even found myself so ensorcelled by the look of the film that I realized I hadn’t been following the dialogue so closely. The dogs and humans are simultaneously hyper-realistic and cartoony, with big, wet eyes that seem to stare into souls. I loved all the little old-timey animation flicks, like masses of string used to simulate smoke, or the way the dogs’ fur sways with just enough movement to make it believable.

Warning: This is definitely not a flick for kiddies. It carries a PG-13 rating, mostly for gross and/or graphic imagery of dogs eating or fighting. Some of the canines used to be the subject of gruesome scientific experiments, and there’s some stark imagery of them with missing limbs or eyes.

I enjoyed “Isle of Dogs,” as one of the most inventive and offbeat movie-going experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s nice to encounter a film so different there’s nothing to compare it to. If I have a substantial criticism, it’s that the movie could have benefitted from a pared-down storyline and cast — too many extraneous humans in tale that’s all for the dogs.

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