Friday, June 1, 2018

Review of ISLE OF DOGS: Compassion for Canines

May 31, 2018

The first Wes Anderson movie I had ever seen was "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009). This was a charming stop-motion animated film (adapted from a book by Roald Dahl) about a sly fox thief, his wife, family and the farmers he stole from. This year, Anderson comes back from a four-year directorial hiatus (since his triumphant "The Great Budapest Hotel") with another stop-motion animated film about animals (this time it was about dogs) and the humans they go up against.

The was an epidemic of dog-flu in canine-saturated Megasaki City. With no cure forthcoming, its despotic Mayor Kobayashi decreed that all dogs should be exiled to the stark and barren Trash Island. There on the island, the dogs (most of which lived comfortable lives before as house pets) led in a sad sorry existence, even having to go around in packs to fight over scraps of food just to survive. 

One day several months later, a little pilot landed on the island on a plane he had hijacked. He was Atari Kobayashi, the mayor's 12 year old nephew, who had come in search of his bodyguard dog Spots.  A pack of alpha-dogs (King, Rex, Boss, Duke and their tough, macho black-haired leader Chief) decided to help the boy with his mission, and embarked on a danger-filled quest for Spots all over Trash Island.

With all the lightning-fast computer-generated animation out nowadays, not everyone, especially younger viewers who grew up on Disney and Cartoon Network, appreciates stop-motion animation. It has certainly gone a long way from "Gumby" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV programs I remember watching as a child. Recently, Oscar had been nominating at least one stop-motion animated feature almost per year, with "The Curse the Were Rabbit" winning the big prize in 2005.  

I admit that I was not exactly a fan of stop-motion myself as a child. Watching films like "Coraline" (2009),  "ParaNorman" (2012),  "Shaun the Sheep" (2015), "Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016), and yes, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," made me appreciate the difficult and meticulous craftsmanship that went in making such intricately artistic films. In "Isle of Dogs," each dog and person had his own unique look -- which mean different hair, eyes, nose, etc. -- each little part of which had to be individually manipulated in every frame to make them move. There were even robotic dogs in the story to complicate the animation more.

The talented voice cast provided each dog his own personality and quirks. Bryan Cranston was the gruff scrappy stray dog Chief. Jeff Goldblum was Duke, always up to date with the latest gossip. Edward Norton as Rex, an "indoor" dog. Bill Murray was Boss, a baseball team mascot. Bob Balaban was King,  a model for dog food commercials. Scarlett Johannson was Nutmeg, a graceful show dog with fancy tricks. F. Murray Abraham was the wise brandy-loving St. Bernard Jupiter, while Tilda Swinton was the pug Oracle, who can see into the future. Harvey Keitel was Gondo, the ugly leader of another gang of dogs. Liev Schreiber was Spots, Akira's bodyguard dog. 

While the dogs spoke in English, most human characters spoke in Japanese, with no subtitles. We can get the meaning of what they said in context. Koyu Rankin was the little pilot Atari. Kunichi Nomura was the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi, while Akira Takayama was his ruthless henchman Major Domo. Akira Ito was Watanabe, the scientist developing a cure for dog flu, while Yoko Ono was his assistant also named Yoko Ono. Frances McDormand was Nelson, English interpreter for the TV news. Greta Gerwig was Tracy Walker, an American exchange student who led the pro-dog protest rallies. Courtney B. Vance provided the narration to introduce and connect the scenes. 

Unlike most other Wes Anderson films, the general mood of "Isle of Dogs" was downbeat given the rather depressing story it was telling. The humor is subtle and deadpan. The plot was predictable, but the imaginative way it was told was the charm. (It was a bit of a downer though why it had to be an American character who played a key role in the rescue.) The pace was slow and deliberate, but built to an action-packed climax. To liven things up, Anderson occasionally squeezed in an item of Japanese culture known to Americans into the story -- Sumo wrestling, Japanese drama theater, Taiko drums, etc.All of these factors made this film a rich, interesting and diverting cinematic experience.  8/10. 


  1. I watched this on an airline flight. After 30 minutes I fell asleep. On the return flight I forced myself to watch the rest. Within 40 minutes of the start of the film I knew who was going to die and who wasn't, how the story was going to resolve (if you can call it that) and the fact that I didn't care about ANY of the characters. I also couldn't name a single one of them. There was more character development in the Flintstones. People did the same stupid things that NO ONE would actually do in real life (yelling when there's a big killer dinosaur looking for them, standing up on high ground etc.) The story was so thin it was probably written on a cocktail napkin. Special effects guys did the usual amazing job, and Pratt tried REALLY hard, but that doesn't make it a good movie. I was grateful when the turbulence hit my plane and the pilot interrupted it. I cannot believe that this utter pile of garbage took in a billion dollars. more sequels, take the billion and use it for some good, instead of torturing people.