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Philosophically Rich 'Isle Of Dogs' Is A Howl Of Joy


This is FRESH AIR. Wes Anderson is known for writing and directing such films as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and the animated feature "Fantastic Mr. Fox." His new film - his second animated feature - is called "Isle Of Dogs," and it's set in Japan in the near future. The voices are supplied by a large cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Greta Gerwig. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Wes Anderson's movies are gorgeous hodgepodges, but there's no podge so hodge as his stop-motion animated feature "Isle Of Dogs." It has so many different elements borrowed from so many different places but as transformed by Anderson's off-symmetrical compositions, pop-out colors and dry wit. It all magically comes together.

It's an allegorical painterly Kabuki comedy that makes you laugh as you're gasping at the visual brilliance, each frame a new surprise while moved by the plight of canine exiles on an island garbage dump off the coast of Japan. That's the premise, that in a purportedly democratic but authoritarian Japanese city called Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi has banished all the dogs, most of them sick with a mysterious flu, to an island where the filthy canines fight over scraps. They lament their state in colloquial American English, as opposed to most of the human characters, who talk in Japanese without subtitles. The effect is amazingly witty.

In an early scene, a surly stray voiced by Bryan Cranston teams up with dogs played by Edward Norton in his peppy scout leader mode, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum. The battle over a garbage bag with a rival pack is preceded by a ritualistic faceoff.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Chief, growling).

EDWARD NORTON: (As Rex) Wait a second. Before we attack each other and tear ourselves to shreds like a pack of maniacs, let's just open the sack first and see what's actually in it. It might not even be worth the trouble.


NORTON: (As Rex) A rancid apple core, two worm-eaten banana peels, a moldy rice cake, a dried up pickle, a tin of sardine bones, a pile of broken egg shells, an old smushed-up rotten gizzard with maggots all over it.

CRANSTON: (As Chief) OK, it's worth it.

EDELSTEIN: The story proper kicks off with the crash landing of a mini plane carrying a boy named Atari, dubbed by the dogs The Little Pilot. He happens to be the ward of Mayor Kobayashi and is searching for his own dog, Spots, not - and this turns out to be important spot - Spot. Bryan Cranston's street dog, Chief, being by nature a biter, wants no part of the kid. But his new house-trained pet pals drag him along on the twisty odyssey. Anderson shaped the story with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura but wrote the screenplay himself. Its one-liners are clever. I love Chief's command - stop licking your wounds. But they also resonate with an exile's lonely sense of incomprehension in his halting courtship with a beauteous show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Chief admits he's a stray but adds, we're all a stray.

What's foremost - this being a Wes Anderson film - is the design. Each frame is its own universe. The classroom where a human American exchange student with a blonde afro voiced by Greta Gerwig is a study in yellow. A sea of silver grass gives this sunless world an eerie luster. Anderson's panels can seem finicky in live action, but here, he is both saluting and goosing Japanese formality. And the stop-motion animation gives the action the slight artificiality it needs.

This is a sort of Kabuki, which throws the emphasis on archetypal gestures. Watch the way the dogs, even while spouting their one-liners, listen, stretch or sneeze in a way that seems the essence of dog-like existence. There's another element here, political, that's hinted in the score. We get several Japanese-inflected renderings of Prokofiev's very Russian "Lieutenant Kije" suite. Is Kobayashi, who poisons his foes, a stand-in for Vladimir Putin? I think he's meant to be. But the movie works as a critique of authoritarianism even if he's just a mayor and the dogs are just dogs.

Animation is a good form for Anderson, who in his last especially twee films, has reduced multi-dimensional actors to puppets. Better he should infuse puppets with multi-dimensionality. But I know that sounds churlish when the best response to a film like "Isle Of Dogs" is a howl of joy. The director's worshippers might consider this Anderson-lite, but just because it's so ingratiating doesn't mean it's not philosophically rich. Underneath the disjointed surface is the characters' deep longing for harmony, a harmony finally represented by the movie itself, which is a triumph of alchemy.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, should corporations be regarded as people in the eyes of the law? Our guest will be Adam Winkler, whose new book "We The Corporations" reviews business efforts in the courts to establish corporate personhood going back 200 years. He says the Citizens United decision is best seen as the latest manifestation of a long-overlooked corporate rights movement. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.