Saturday, July 21, 2018

"Isle of Dogs": review

Is it my imagination, or is Wes Anderson like a deadpan version of Steven Spielberg? With few exceptions, so many Anderson films follow the trope of kids on a mission. Look at 1998's "Rushmore" (kid vies for a teacher's love), or 2005's "The Squid and the Whale" (kids deal with divorce), or 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom" (coming-of-age film). Now comes 2018's "Isle of Dogs." Note that, depending on your accent, the film's title sounds like "I Love Dogs," and that's kind of what this movie is about, although I have to admit the movie's central message seems somewhat muddled to me. For what it's worth, the story plays like a Wes Anderson comedy, i.e., the humor is generally muted, deadpan, and somewhat oblique. I've never found Anderson's work all that funny, at least not in a laugh-out-loud way (with the notable exception of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which did make me laugh out loud several times), and in that vein, "Isle of Dogs" is more of the same.

The movie is directed by Anderson and stars the voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura, and Yoko Ono. The basic story is that the Kobayashi clan has, for centuries, despised dogs, animals that began as free-running, independent beasts that eventually submitted to human masters, over time becoming disease-ridden and pestilential. The current mayor of Megasaki is himself a descendant of the Kobayashi clan, and he has a "ward": a twelve-year-old nephew named Atari whose parents had been killed years ago. All the dogs in the area, having contracted some sort of "dog flu" and/or "snout fever," have been deported to Trash Island, a marginal place filled with garbage and rot and broken machinery. Atari sneaks away from his uncle, steals a small plane, and crash-lands on the island in search of his dog Spots, who was the first dog deported by Mayor Kobayashi. A small pack of dogs (that includes Jeff Goldblum as the resident rumor-monger) comes to Atari's aid, with one scruffy stray named Chief (Cranston) holding back. Much of the story is devoted to the developing relationship between Chief and Atari; other subplots revolve around the mayor's continued attempts to suppress efforts by dog-sympathizing scientists to develop a vaccine that can cure all the animals en masse. A student movement led by an expat girl takes hold, and a small-scale rebellion against the mayor builds.

As I mentioned earlier, it was hard to know what exactly the movie was about. Was it about the fundamental bond between people and dogs? If so, there are dogs like Chief who would rather bite humans than play the role of loyal companion (although Chief softens up eventually). Was it about unnecessary cruelty to animals? Hard to say: the type of cruelty we see is so cartoonishly exaggerated as to be hard to take seriously. If anything, the cruelty is merely a plot device to provide our supposed hero, Atari, with a series of difficult challenges to surmount. Was it about political corruption (with the attendant murder and suppression of information) and the need to rebel against calcified social structures? What was this film about? As with most of Anderson's work, I had a hard time reading and making sense of the story, even though it played out comprehensibly—at least at a superficial level—right in front of my nose. Anderson's defenders, of whom there are many, could doubtless teach me a few things about what the man is going for, but to me, it's not a sign of good artistry when you need a Cliff's Notes explanation to decipher a film.

That said, I found "Isle of Dogs" watchable and even touching on occasion. I didn't find it ha-ha funny, but that's par for the course with Wes Anderson, whose sense of humor generally moves to the beat of its own esoteric drummer. As a kid's adventure, the film aims true at a young target audience: children will like this movie, I think, even if they don't understand some of the intricate plot points. I enjoyed the way the movie played with language: the human characters mostly spoke Japanese, which was only occasionally subtitled or rendered into English by various means. The dogs, meanwhile, spoke in English as a way to symbolize the language barrier between dogs and humans. (Spots has an earpiece, as does Atari, that can be used for interspecies communication, but this device doesn't dominate the plot.) In the end, I think this movie is meant to be something on the order of an epic or an odyssey, but on multiple fronts: a boy and a dog become friends, a corrupt city is healed, and the relationship between man and beast is restored to a rightful, natural order.

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