“Isle of Dogs,” the latest from Wes Anderson, is a stop action animation that the director says was inspired by animated holiday specials of the 1960s (such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and the movies of Akira Kurosawa. That’s an eccentric combination, and the result is a movie so unusual and so the product of a singular imagination, that it’s easy to appreciate, respect and mostly enjoy it, even through some long, dull stretches.
At its best, the movie expresses an affection for dogs and is very much attuned to what is wonderful about dogs and what’s funny about them — their sincerity, their credulousness, their odd tendency to get nervous over nothing and yet to occasionally remain oblivious to real threats. As such, “Isle of Dogs” feels more in harmony with who dogs really are than most movies, both animated and live action.
For the dog roles, Anderson not only got top talent, but found actors with voices that are particularly identifiable, such as Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson. Even then, it never feels as if Anderson distorted characters to accommodate the actors, but rather that, in each case, he paired the right actor to the right dog.
“Isle of Dogs” takes place in some near-future Japan in which our canine friends are perceived as spreading disease. This leads the mayor (the voice of Kunichi Nomura) to whip up public fear so that he can deport all the city’s dogs to a garbage dump, where they are forced to live on food scraps.
This is particularly difficult for the previously pampered house dogs, but for Chief (Cranston), a stray, the whole situation pretty much confirms his dog-eat-dog view of existence.
Most of “Isle of Dogs” deals with the efforts of a little boy (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s distant nephew, to free the dogs from their island, a risque adventure: “That kid is going to get us all put to sleep,” one of the dogs grumbles. The only problem is that that is a very slim story for a 101 minute movie. As it stands, it feels stretched, so that for significant periods of time, the only pleasures are incidental — the odd laugh, the amusing aside, or some brilliant touch of the animators’ art.
Still, it’s impossible to dismiss this “Isle of Dogs,” especially considering how of-the-moment it seems, as if pulled from recent headlines, when, in fact, stop-action animation takes forever, and Anderson was talking about this project as early as three years ago. For example, the mayor is a totalitarian dictator who uses poison to achieve his ends, and the whole issue of dog deportation seems a metaphor for the immigration question.
It’s another case of a movie’s weird way of knowing the future, even before the filmmaker does.
“Isle of Dogs”
Starring Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray. Directed by Wes Anderson.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Bottom line: Story is thin, but it’s very of-the-moment
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