Friday, March 23, 2018

Isle of Dogs: A tail-wagging triumph

Isle of Dogs (2018) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and some violent images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.23.18

This one is a treasure.

Wes Anderson’s films are eccentric — to say the least — but, over time, his unique brand of quirk has become ever more beguiling. Recall that 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel won four of its nine Academy Award nominations, and that Anderson has earned six nominations himself, dating back to a scripting nod for 2002’s The Royal Tennenbaums.

Twelve-year-old Atari, in an act of defiance against his guardian, the mayor of Megasaki
City, isn't about to let his beloved pet remain quarantined with all the other dogs on an
outlying "trash island."
One of the other six was earned when he helmed 2010’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, an engagingly warped adaptation of Roald Dahl’s droll little tale, presented via an insane amount of painstakingly detailed stop-motion puppet animation.

Anderson has returned to that form with Isle of Dogs, and it’s a work of even more incandescent brilliance: a thoroughly enchanting underdog fable for our time, and a similarly stunning achievement in puppet animation, and the jaw-droppingly detailed micro-sets they inhabit.

The only applicable descriptor — a term not to be used lightly — is awesome.

But the film isn’t merely fun to watch; it’s also powered by a genius storyline co-written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura (the latter a Japanese writer, DJ, radio personality and occasional actor who made brief appearances in Lost in Translation and, yes, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

As often is the case with animated films, it’s difficult to praise the “acting” per se, since the characters aren’t flesh and blood. And yet there’s no doubt that Anderson — alongside animation director Mark Waring, and puppet master Andy Gent — has coaxed impressively sensitive performances from his many stars. Line readings perfectly match facial expressions and body language; double-takes and comic timing are delivered with the impeccable mastery of a stand-up veteran.

In short, we couldn’t be more engaged if these were “real” performers ... which would be impossible, of course, since dogs don’t talk.

But you may come away from this film thinking they do.

The time is 20 years in the future; the location, a cyberpunk-ish Japanese Archipelago metropolis known as Megasaki City. Outbreaks of “snout fever” and “dog flu” have spread rapidly through the city’s entire canine population, giving the Uni Prefecture’s Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) an excuse to whip up an insidious propaganda campaign. Stoking public anxiety about the dangers of a cross-species epidemic, he orders all dogs banned and sent to so-called “Trash Island,” a far-flung, floating junktopia polluted with the residue of massive, environment-threatening corporate failures.

(Did I mention political and socio-economic relevance? This film is laden with that, as well.)

The city’s inhabitants, succumbing to the anti-dog hysteria, willingly allow their beloved pets to be consigned to this refuse-laden prison: a hellish realm of discarded debris that would overwhelm even WALL-E’s patience.

But not quite everybody has bought into Mayor Kobayashi’s edict. The young journalists who publish Megasaki Senior High’s Daily Manifesto, led by feisty foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), smell a conspiratorial rat. (There are lots of rats in this film. Most skitter and scurry along the edges of events taking place on Trash Island. Others have two legs.)

But that’s getting ahead of things. Anderson’s film doesn’t progress in anything approaching conventional linear fashion; it weaves, bobs and slides via flashbacks, relevant sidebar anecdotes — rendered in the style of traditional Japanese artwork — and just plain whimsical detours. The result is never confusing; it’s just another of the many delightful features that characterize the film as a whole.

By this point, we’ve already spent considerable time on Trash Island, and become intimately acquainted with its motley quintet of scene-stealing alpha dogs:

• Rex (Edward Norton), the plucky, decisive, de facto leader of the pack;

• Boss (Bill Murray), former mascot of the Megasaki Dragons Little League baseball team, and given to gloomy pronouncements;

• Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a gossip-loving dispenser of rumors that have an eerie tendency to be true;

• King (Bob Balaban), former spokesdog for Doggy Chop, beloved breakfast of canine champions; and, most particularly,

• Chief (Bryan Cranston), a coal-black stray with plenty of attitude, and an instinctive contempt for his companions’ previously pampered sensibilities, and the humans who fostered such behavior.

Six months into the heinous dog quarantine, their roving, desperate, daily struggle of (just short of) dog-eat-dog survival is interrupted, quite spectacularly, by the crash-landing arrival of a small, single-engine airplane. Its lucky-to-be-alive inhabitant: Atari (Koyu Rankin), Mayor Kobayashi’s plucky, 12-year-old orphan ward, who — defying his forever scowling guardian — has come to find his beloved bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).

And thus we proceed with a saga that is equal parts quest adventure, canine-oriented comedy and blistering social commentary, wrapped up in an utterly irresistible package.

Anderson’s scrupulous attention to detail is evident throughout: from the little bits of animation business (wandering fleas, ticks and flower petals) to the perfectly cast voice performances from an impressive litter of guest actors. Scarlett Johansson, as a glamorous yet street-smart show dog? Tilda Swinton, as a prophetic pooch dubbed Oracle, who “gets visions” courtesy of nearby TV monitors? Frances McDormand, as a translator who can’t help becoming emotionally involved in the unfolding doggy drama?

Yoko Ono, as an assistant scientist named Assistant-Scientist Yoko-Ono?

Utterly perfect, every one of them.

As are their syllable-precise, relentlessly dry-as-toast line readings: an affectation that makes everything even funnier.

Oh, except for Gerwig’s Tracy Walker. As the lone American in these proceedings, she’s allowed to be passionately, furiously over-emotional.

Anderson is disarmingly coy about how he lets this tale unfold: Much of the Japanese dialog doesn’t get translated — at least, not immediately — and that’s particularly true of Atari’s entreaties to his new canine companions. But we always get the essential drift of what’s taking place, just as Anderson and his puppet handlers understand, down to the subtlest ruffle of fur and twitch of snout, how dogs behave.

The drama is enhanced further by Courtney B. Vance’s authoritative narration, and Alexandre Desplat’s hypnotic, taiko drum-based score.

Isle of Dogs is a shrewdly manipulative, multi-layered delight that succeeds on all of its many levels, in great part because — at its core — it’s the endearing saga of a boy and his dog. (And so much more.)

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