‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new animated flick Isle of Dogs has all the charm and grace of a really well-done school presentation. It works really well; the stop-motion animation is superb. Everything works. But, on the other hand, it works really hard to make a point (well, several) and that drives the picture.
The film takes place in Japan in the near future when dogs are seen as spreading disease to humans. The mayor of the city of Megasaki (the voice of Kunichi Nomura) becomes a demagogue, scaring the people enough to get support to ship all the dogs to a garbage dump where they have to forage for scraps of food.
The dogs have a really hard time, particularly since most have been house dogs, fed and cared for by their people. Chief (Bryan Cranston), however, is a stray who is far more cynical about things; he actually uses the phrase “dog eat dog.” But somehow the dogs all manage to work together, even making decisions based on majority rule. Three cheers for democracy!
The key plot element is having a young man, Atari (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the mayor, try to find and rescue his dog, and then try to free all the dogs on the island. Most of the film focuses on his search. But a strong subplot deals with the discovery by reporter/activist Tracy (Greta Gerwig) that the whole claim of disease if a fraud. A key element is that the mayor prefers cats.
Among the flaws is the difficulty in figuring out exactly what the point is. Some claim that it is a response to President Donald Trump’s policy toward undocumented aliens, and they hail director Wes Anderson for his anti-Trump response. Since the movie was actually begun in 2014 (stop action is a very slow process), when just about no one had any notion of who would be elected in 2016, that would seem to be pushing things. Other critics use it as an attack on the overreaching powers of government, and there are even some who claim the dogs set up a better government than just about all the ones we people do.
The biggest flaw, however, is more serious. There is simply not enough plot to last for a long, 101-minute movie. We have the deportation done right at the start, and the search for the dog and the underlying plot, all of which would fit nicely into a one-hour television show. That forces the film to use a lot of one-liners, some quick jokes, and an overly complicated search to get us through the parts that mean nothing but are part of the padding needed to make this a feature-length film.
What makes the film come alive, aside from the brilliant attention to detail which seems inherent in all stop-motion films, are the voices of the dogs. Special kudos should go to those actors. Spots (Liev Schreiber), the boy’s dog, is helped by Chief, Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and especially Jeff Goldblum, who plays Duke. Somehow they manage to inhabit the dog’s characteristics with their own personalities, which provides a lot of the fun. Even the city involved, Megasaki, is a sort of homage to futuristic films, providing a vivid contrast with the dump where the dogs are exiled.
There is a bit of confusion since Atari speaks Japanese (and never in English) but he works well with dogs whose “barks” are in English. That is a small point that has been built up by some critics who claim that Anderson is appropriating Japanese culture for his film. I find those kinds of things nonsensical. Remember a month or so ago when The Black Panther was criticized for using African culture? The arts work through all cultures and do best when they are blended. Megasaki, like Wakanda, may only live in the mind of its creators, but many of us get enormous pleasure from living there even if only for the time we are at the movies.
This is a good movie. I found it interesting, although too long. But, since we are coming into the summer movie season, which is beginning earlier every spring, it might provide a last chance to have a film that actually has a point other than sheer entertainment.