‘Isle of Dogs,’ not another shaggy dog story

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Wes Anderson (“Grand Budapest Hotel”) has been called an imaginative, curious, and even idiosyncratic director, and just plain weird. He also co-wrote and co-produced this unique picture that takes us into another strange and intriguing alternative universe that he creates for himself, but invites us in. Love it or hate it, it’s a remarkable place to visit.

Taking place in the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, 20 plus years in the future, this is not another shaggy dog story. It is filled with timely political allegories, such as scapegoating, political hysteria and authoritarianism; however, it is not necessarily like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” It might be for people who love dogs more than people.

When the canine population reaches a saturation point, a nomadic dog fever breaks out, spreading disease, fleas and ticks throughout the population. While scientists work to develop a serum, the unscrupulous mayoral candidate Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) rides a fear-mongering campaign into power. Blaming the city’s problems on lovable pets, he successfully turns man’s best friend into their worst enemy, man bites dog.

Deeply dividing the populace, the dogs are nonetheless deported to Trash Island, just off the coast. Filled with the town’s garbage, it is renamed “Isle of Dogs,” a play on words, sounding kind of like “I Love Dogs.” Interesting that this is set in Japan, where the Japanese people are most in tuned to deportation and internment. The point is how good people can be so easily persuaded that their friends are the enemy.

Anderson says choosing Japan was mostly his tribute to Japanese filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (“Seven Samarai” 1954). Anderson also chose “old tech” stop-motion action as a tribute to the Tokyo based Rankin-Bass Christmas movies he grew up with, such as “Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer” (1964). As dogs are partially colorblind, scenes from a dog’s perspective use dull colors. Who else would choose nearly monochromatic stop-motion over vibrantly modern animated techniques of Disney and Pixar?

Given all the heavy messages and filming techniques, this film morphs simply into a young boy’s search for his lost dog. Yet, our fascination is with the talking hounds. Unlike the cutie-pooh dog voices in Saturday morning cartoons, this pack of five is voiced by Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban.

Roaming the island as exiles amongst the debris, rats and maggots, these former house pets speak openly about their hopes, challenges and struggles for survival. With the deadpan humor of a Bob Newhart (ask your grandparents), they engage in playful doggie dialog that genuinely feels like it could be from our own mutt’s perspective. When Chief receives his first puppy treat, he cooly states, “Hmm, salty, rich flavor, probably pretty good for my teeth. Yup, it’s my new favorite food.”

The all-star cast of voices for this animated feature includes four Oscar winners and seven nominees. It is rounded out with Scarlett Johansson, Francis McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Liv Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens and Angelica Huston as the mute Poodle (inside joke with Anderson). The musical score, heavily featuring Japanese taiko drums, is by Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”).

“Isle of Dogs” is 101 minutes and rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images. Anderson movies are so peculiar; they are not necessarily intended for the general public. His clever satires are a continuous inside joke. More intended for a smug smile than a full chuckle, he sometimes outsmarts himself.

With all that was going on, there really wasn’t enough material here for a full-length feature, so it does drag near the end; however, we loved the dogs, fascinated by the story and curious about Anderson’s own pedigree. Recently, a team of linguists completed a decade-long study of the meaning of each bark. It was determined the dogs were saying, “Hey, hey, hey, hey!”

Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: C+

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Ron & Leigh Martel