ISLE OF DOGS (Directed by Wes Anderson, 101 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Near the end of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Snoopy, a wire-hair fox terrier owned by Sam Shakusky, the bespectacled, coonskin-capped orphan-on-the-lam at the center of the film, is accidentally killed by an errant arrow. By way of eulogy, Sam is asked if Snoopy was a good dog. Unwittingly channeling the louche moral relativism of a Left Bank existentialist, Sam shrugs wearily and asks “Who’s to say?” Anderson’s new film, a stop-motion animated puppet pageant called Isle Of Dogs, dispenses with any and all such moral ambiguity: it is the cleanly-drawn story of good dogs and, with a few strategic exceptions, bad humans. Set in the mythical Japanese city of Megasaki 20 years in the dystopian future, Isle Of Dogs imagines the unthinkable: a world without Man’s Best Friend.
All the dogs in the Megasaki have mysteriously contracted the dreaded Dog Flu, which is threatening to make the species leap into the humans. As a protective measure, the city’s corrupt, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi signs a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island, a massive putrefying garbage dump off the coast of the Japanese Archipelago. A dog’s life is hard on Trash Island, where they sleep in a cubist mosaic of toxic detritus and wander its vast rancid wastes competing with rats and each other for maggot-riddled scraps. We soon learn — thanks to a muckraking student newspaper reporter/foreign exchange student from America named Tracy Walker, voiced by Greta Gerwig — that Dog Flu was actually created by evil scientists in the mayor’s employ and unleashed on Megasaki’s dog population as a pretext for their eventual banishment and replacement by robot dogs. You see, Mayor Kobayashi just so happens to own the factory that makes robot dogs.
Back on Trash Island, we soon make the acquaintance of a small posse of exiled curs — voiced by the likes of Edward Norton (Rex), Bill Murray (Boss), Bryan Cranston (Chief), Bob Balaban (King) and Jeff Goldblum (Duke) — who are sick, starving and on the verge of giving up. Suddenly a small prop plane crashes into the island, and the dogs pull its pint-sized aviator out of the wreckage. His name is Atari, the 12-year-old ward of Mayor Kobayashi. Atari has come looking for his beloved best friend/bodyguard, Spots (Liev Schreiber), who was exiled to Trash Island while his young master was in coma after surviving a tragic bullet train wreck that has left him an orphan. Together they embark on a film-long odyssey across Trash Island in search of Spots and in the process, with the help of haystack-haired Tracy and — wait for it — Yoko Ono, thwart the Mayor’s evil plan to genocide the dogs with weaponized wasabi, and reveal the miraculous discovery of a cure for Dog Flu.
As always, the latest installment of Wes World is an impeccably-curated, semi-precious, eye-dazzling display of aesthetic prowess. Like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle Of Dogs was filmed in painstakingly artisanal stop-motion by Tristan Oliver — think Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer or Davey & Goliath — and production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod have invested the post-apocalyptic mis en scene of Trash Island with a scuzzy splendor and rendered Megasaki a sinister noir shadowland. Visually, the film pays homage to samurai epics, late period Kurosawa and peak Kaiju, the cinematic genre that brought us the stompy likes of Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan. Andy Gent’s dog puppetry is a four-legged marvel of matted fur, wagging tails, canine incisors and impossibly sad cobalt blue eyes that are forever trying to break your heart. Alexandre Desplat’s score channels the sonic tropes of the Land Of The Rising Sun, most notably the majestic taiko drums of Kabuki theater. However, the soundtrack is absent the usual ‘60s Mod-psych deep cuts, with the exception of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s high lonesome “I Won’t Hurt You” which is used to devastating effect at the tipping point of the film’s epic sadness.
On paper, the storybook unreality of stop-motion film-making seems like a perfect match for the high twee snow-globe artistry of Wes Anderson. In reality, the downside of stop-motion is that puppets, no matter how artfully they are mastered and manipulated, rarely evince the kind of emotional buy-in you get from watching the trials and tribulations and triumphs of an ensemble cast of homo sapiens. This is why the anthropomorphized furries of Fantastic Mr. Fox, for all their charm and whimsy, will never come close to evoking the broken, sad-eyed pathos of a Richie Tenenbaum or the unearned triumphalism of Max Fischer, the soulful foppery of Monsieur Gustav H. or the quiet desperation of Steve Zissou in twilight. Still, Isle Of Dogs has many clever tricks up its sleeve, lots of yucks to be had and the narrative resonates on multiple levels. On its face, it seems like a classic story about a boy and his dog — or more accurately a boy and some dogs that help him find his dog — set in Japan in the near-future. But beneath the surface, it hits a lot closer to home in the here and now. At heart, Isle of Dogs is a cautionary tale about people and how easily they can be deceived and misled by demagogues and enlisted to assist in the demonization and eventual but inevitable genocide of The Other. And that, tragically, is a story that never gets old. NOW PLAYING AT RITZ-FIVE