Anyone who’s ever owned a dog has probably thought at one time or another, “I wonder what he’s thinking? What would he say if he could talk?” As for our beagle, Gracie, I’m quite sure she would talk about her excitement when she knocks over the trash can to find whatever culinary treats we’ve discarded and agree with me that the White Sox rebuild process is taking a bit too long. I could be wrong. I’m pretty sure that my son would posit that Gracie would speak intelligently about soccer and compliment his skills at every turn, while my wife would envision her telling her how much she loved her.
What we project our dogs’ personality to be is a personal, private thing, and I couldn’t help but think that director Wes Anderson must have had great fun assigning human characteristics to his myriad canine creatures in his newest feature, Isle of Dogs. Supposedly inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the stop-motion Christmas television special from the 1960s, the film is a loving tribute to dogs of all sorts of shapes, sizes and temperaments, obviously tailored to the voice talents of many of his longtime collaborators.
Like many movies concerning dogs and humans, Dogs revolves around the separation of a loving master and their faithful pet. No one falls down a well this time out, but a mysterious, simultaneous outbreak of canine maladies has broken out in Megasari City, forcing its mayor (voice by Kunichi Nomura) to exile all dogs to Trash Island, an elaborate, man-made atoll already inhabited by feral pooches and the home of a mysterious industrial factory. Despondent that he’s been separated from his dog, Spots, the mayor’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the quarantined area to save his friend, only to crash land there, where he’s watched over by a group of five mangy mutts.
The political subtext is obvious from the start and becomes even timelier when it’s revealed that an evil corporation is behind the canine hysteria (they want to replace real dogs with their own robotic ones). This is a bit heavy-handed, and the film’s story ends up being a bit thin, with repetition giving way to invention as there are more than a few moments where Anderson seems to be narratively spinning his wheels.
Be that as it may, the director’s trademark, wry sense of humor shines throughout, which helps us overlook the movie’s flaws. The five central dogs – tough-pooch Chief (Bryan Cranston), logical Rex (Edward Norton), gossip monger Duke (Jeff Goldblum), droll Boss (Bill Murray) and worrywart King (Bob Balaban) – are brought to in the performers’ own distinct manner, producing one laugh after another with their enthusiastic delivery of the dogs’ opposing views. A sense of anticipation sets in whenever they gather to discuss a problem or issue and in these moments, Anderson and his cast do not disappoint.
Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg, a former show dog, appears far too briefly; she and Chief generate a Lady and the Tramp vibe that I wish had been expanded upon. F. Murray Abraham’s sonorous tones are used for Jupiter, the oldest and wisest of all the dogs, while Courtney B. Vance’s assured narration keeps the story moving.
Much like his Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox, this film is meticulously rendered and will require multiple viewings in order to take in all that Anderson offers. Yet, in the end, like the best of the director’s movies, this one has heart, and while the loving bond between humans and dogs has been portrayed often, rarely has it been done with the deft touch present here. Anderson knows not to lay the sentiment on too thick, and this approach makes an oft-told theme seem new.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.