Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Koyu Rankin, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Yoko Ono, Akira Takayama, Akira Ito, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Mari Natsuki, Nijiro Murakami, Courtney B. Vance (voices)
Written by: Wes Anderson, based on a story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Language: Japanese, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 101
Date: 03/23/2018

Isle of Dogs (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Bow-Wow Factor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Isle of Dogs is the ninth film by Wes Anderson, and his second stop-motion animation, after 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox. While its level of profundity may be debatable, it certainly goes farther than any previous Anderson movie, and in weirder directions. It also re-asserts Anderson's standing as one of America's current best.

Yet Anderson has his detractors. For many, he's too cutesy, too artificial, too unwilling to leave his colorful "toybox" world, as if there were something wrong with that.

But what these gripes really come down to is that his movies are funny, and humans believe that, if something is funny, it's not to be taken seriously. Anyone who makes others laugh for a living knows otherwise: it's hard work, and it takes plenty of skill.

The film's design and framing are not only funny, they are things of astonishing beauty. Like many have said of Kubrick, every frame in the wondrous Isle of Dogs is worthy of being a painting, whether it inspires a grin or a gasp.

Its visual range extends from glorious heaps of garbage to the rectangular insides of laboratories.

One scene takes place in a structure built entirely of colored bottles; the way the light plays (or doesn't play) on the characters is worthy of a viewing by itself.

Isle of Dogs takes place in a futuristic, fictitious Japan. A canine flu overcomes the country, and the tyrannical mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), decides to exile all dogs to the aptly-named Trash Island.

First to go is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), who belongs to — and looks after — Kobayashi's young, orphaned nephew Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin).

Months later, the exiled dogs have formed a kind of scavenger civilization. One pack includes four formerly domesticated dogs — Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), King (voiced by Bob Balaban), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) — and one stray, Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston).

Atari arrives, crashing a stolen plane, and seeking Spots. The five pooches agree to help, requiring a trip across the strange landscape.

Meanwhile, an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), who works on her school newspaper, senses a conspiracy that reaches right to the top.

The cast list goes much farther than that, including Scarlett Johansson as former showdog Nutmeg, recent Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as a translator, and many actors of Japanese descent; the introduction informs us that the Japanese will be heard as spoken, but that barks will be heard in English.

Like Mexico in the recent Coco, Isle of Dogs feels respectful and curious toward its Japanese culture, and none of the jokes are built on ridicule or misunderstanding (except, of course, misunderstandings between dogs and humans).

This is also arguably the first time that Anderson has focused on the downtrodden, i.e. the "rubbish" of society, as well as on politics. His ultimate denouncements are simple — family is good and corruption is bad — but effectively moving.

In particular, Cranston's vocal performance is so powerful that when his Chief gets his first taste of a doggie biscuit, his reaction may require viewers to reach for their tissues.

But it's also hilarious. Unlike so many other comic filmmakers that simply try to emulate Woody Allen, Anderson's work feels like it springs from a fresh source.

Many laughs are built on a certain offbeat rhythm, such as a pair of "haikus," written by Atari; you listen, you pause, and you giggle. It's a sheer joy.

Isle of Dogs — which, if spoken allowed, sounds like "I love dogs" — is, above all, a work of love, and those with open hearts will find treasure among its glittering trash.

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