Isle of Dogs
Bruce Steele: So, is Isle of Dogs your new favorite film of 2018?
Edwin Arnaudin: Is that a rhetorical question? What everyone wants to know is whether or not it's yours.
Bruce: I don't pick favorites this early in the season, but it's up there. I haven't seen Wes Anderson's previous stop-motion animation feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, but that aside I can safely say Isle of Dogs is the most artistically ambitious puppet-animation movie since at least The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Edwin: There's so much going on visually here — moreso than in Mr. Fox, which one would hope seeing as Anderson has had tie to hone his stop-motion skills. Plus the story is engaging and the vocal work impeccable.
Bruce: Agreed on both counts. It's been a while since we've had a good "boy and his dog" movie, one that isn't dumbed down or sentimental. Using that trope to build a movie about political demagoguery and scapegoating is especially timely. It's appropriate that Dogs is sharing the Fine Arts Theatre with The Death of Stalin.
Edwin: That would be an amusing double feature! In typical Anderson fashion, there's plenty going on narratively, too. We've got the sick dogs exiled on Trash Island, where 12-year-old Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) flies to find his lost canine Spots; skullduggery there and in Megasaki City by his power-hungry guardian, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura); and resistance efforts by a group of young protesters, led by exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). Did it all work together smoothly for you?
Bruce: It’s definitely a coherent story, but for me the narrative was less impressive than the visuals and voicework you mentioned earlier. It’s such a beautifully composed movie, inspired in part by Japanese paintings like those it uses in a prologue to set up the story.
Edwin: At least since The Royal Tenenbaums, certain viewers have complained about Anderson’s dollhouse aesthetic and exacting attention to detail being overly precious and — to use one of my least favorite words — twee. While I can somewhat understand a resistance to his style in flesh-and-blood stories, these issues seem to subside in an animated setting. Did you experience something along those lines?
Bruce: I would never call Anderson’s work “twee,” but certainly his meticulous, comic-book-inflected compositions are perfect here. They made me smile throughout. And there are plenty of visual gags as well. It’s an aesthetic joy ride.
Edwin: Do you think younger viewers will likewise enjoy the adventure?
Bruce: School-age children may well enjoy the visuals and probably will follow the basic rescue story, but it’s not in any way dumbed down as most family-friendly animated movies are, so there are stretches without much to engage the little ones. What did our young friend Lucas think of it?
Edwin: He seemed generally hooked, though more mature details like the yellowish liquid contents of the barrel around the neck of Jupiter (“Is that pee?”) and a rather graphic human surgery scene (“What’s going on?”) prompted questions. Fortunately, honorary Movie Guy/father Kenny was there with quick, appeasing answers.
Bruce: And popcorn. Another pleasure adults will have that Lucas missed is hearing beloved actors voicing canine characters with all the personality and quirkiness that they bring to live-action roles. Jeff Goldblum may be the most audibly recognizable and amusing. Did you have a favorite?
Edwin: I like Edward Norton as gung-ho pseudo leader Rex. Ever since Moonrise Kingdom, I’ve felt his peppy yet melancholy acting is an excellent fit for Anderson’s filmmaking, and that’s again true here. Gerwig is also a lot of fun, but Harvey Keitel might boast the most laughs per screen time of the bunch.
Bruce: Norton is dog-gone great, indeed. And hearing Bob Balaban’s slightly haughty tones reminded me that he was the original Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown 50 years ago, when he was 22. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have a bit less to do, but they get their licks in, so to speak.
Edwin: Though they’re largely expository roles, I nonetheless enjoyed hearing recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand as a broadcast interpreter and think Courtney B. Vance’s voice adds an epic feel to the production as its narrator. But back to the visuals: Did particular set pieces stand out to you?
Bruce: Almost everything on the island was equally exquisite, especially some confrontations in the second half, but I don’t want to spoil those. Anderson does a great job establishing his aesthetic for the movie (and introducing the characters) in an early scene in which the main pack battles a weaker canine clan over some food. The use of comic-book clouds of roiling dust to blur out the fights is especially clever.
Edwin: Anderson makes similar effective use of cotton balls in Mr. Fox, but really has taken his animation game to new levels with Dogs. Much as I adore his efforts in this medium, I like that he sprinkles them between live-action work and think each informs the other well.
Bruce: He spent some years on this, and they were not wasted. My one quibble is that our hero, Atari, remains something of a blank slate, far from the awesome pubescent leads of Moonrise Kingdom. That may in part be a function of his un-subtitled and usually untranslated Japanese speech but I also think it's a problem in the writing. Other than his dedication to his dog, we don't learn much about his feelings or view of the world, since he barely responds to his evil uncle or the death of his parents. Maybe the focus on so many dogs distracted Anderson from this core lapse.
Edwin: I hear what you’re saying, but the movie’s not called Isle of Humans. I see Atari and his fellow bipeds as supporting players in the journey of Duke (Bryan Cranston, likewise superb) from stray scrapper to something more — and the extent of their development doesn't bother me.
Bruce: Given the nice character arc given to Ohio exchange student Tracy (Gerwig), I don't think that argument holds up. But you're right that all the doggy delights are the main show. Isle of Dogs is going to hard to beat for next year's Animated Feature Oscar, especially given Pixar and Disney's focus on sequels. Anderson's movie is as original as they come. I give it a high A-minus.
Edwin: After some “pat on the head” screenplay (Tenenbaums; Moonrise) and animation nominations, then being a finalist for writing, directing and Best Picture for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this may indeed be the film that adds “Academy Award Winner” to Anderson’s name. If not, this solid A creation will be another sign of the voting body’s inability to embrace true imaginative thought.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)