SXSW review: ‘Isle of Dogs’ a treat but hounded by some real problems

As a movie constructed of tiny moving parts, it’s fitting that “Isle of Dogs” resonates most warmly in its quiet, little moments. There’s the scene where a recently orphaned 12-year-old boy, laid up in traction in a hospital, meets his new guard dog, who licks his hand in silence. Or a later scene when the same boy gives a biscuit to a different dog, a wary stray who’s never tasted one before. The hound is overcome. So is the viewer.

The latest from film auteur (and University of Texas alum) Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” closed out the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival in its North American premiere to a packed house wearing complimentary “PRO-DOG” headbands. Set in the near future in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, the stop-motion-animated film tells a seemingly simple story at its heart: A boy sets out to find his lost dog, with the help of a pack of mangy mutts.

(From L-R): Edward Norton as “Rex,” Jeff Goldblum as “Duke,” Bill Murray as “Boss,” Bob Balaban as “King” and Bryan Cranston as “Chief” in “Isle of Dogs.” Contributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

The boy, Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin, whom one hopes has a best friend with the last name Bass), is the ward of the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, also with a writing credit), who has exiled all dogs in the city to live on the dumps of Trash Island. The reason why is all explained in an ancient legend prologue. Best not to dwell on the motives too long, but suffice it to say that the Kobayashis are decidedly cat people.

Atari’s beloved guard dog, Spots (a stout-hearted Liev Schreiber), was the first pooch to get the boot. Six months after the mayor’s decree, more dogs have found themselves subsisting on scarce garbage for food on the island, and Atari arrives in a tiny prop plane for a hero’s quest. Guiding him are Rex (Edward Norton, such a delightful drip of a dog), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), that grizzled stray with a chip on his shoulder and nose for a fight.

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As you might guess for a movie about man’s best friend, “Isle of Dogs” stands up for loyalty in all its forms: between owners and pets, or between members of a pack, or of young idealists toward their cause. When the movie puts Atari and Chief together, it charms. Cranston imbues the jaded stray with a heart-rending pain through all those bared teeth, as he learns what the most simple kinds of affection feel like. The lack of subtitling of Atari’s Japanese dialogue is also a tidy device to put an English-language viewer in the dog’s, er, paws.

Speaking of Anderson, all the director’s trademarks are here, even in miniature form: the twee musical throwback (an instantly infectious “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band), the impeccably curated tableaus, the eclectic cast of favorite players. If you’re going to go animated, why not stock up like winter is coming and beloved character actors are canned goods? Tilda Swinton’s turn as a prescient pug dubbed the Oracle is a gas, and she’s used with remarkable restraint. “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig gives a foreign exchange student/budding journalist/dog rights activist pleasing notes of Lisa Simpson and Leslie Knope. Heck, even Yoko Ono did some voice work in this thing.

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Much like Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the intricacies of the animation are exquisite. The canine characters glow with fur-bound life. The crying effects look so good that you can tell the production team got incredibly stoked and slotted them into the movie wherever they could. You will believe a man’s best friend can cry.

Back to the language barrier. To watch the movie, you’ve got to try to wrap your arms around the cultural politics of “Isle of Dogs,” which features dogs voiced by white actors in a Japanese world and human Japanese characters mostly voiced by Asian actors. Anderson goes to pretty laborious lengths to avoid subtitled dialogue, including translator characters (one is voiced by Frances McDormand). Questions arise: Why did Gerwig’s character need to be a foreign exchange student instead of a Japanese schoolkid, for example? Expressive line readings from Rankin and Nomura constantly made me wonder what the film is like to watch if you understand both English and Japanese. I also wondered if Anderson thought about such a person at any point from concept to post-production.

“Isle of Dogs” also doesn’t really spend much time thinking about female characters, whether human or canine. Female dogs are mostly absent: There’s Swinton’s bit-part; a show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson who only exists to service an underdeveloped romance and also get in a really lazy “bitch” joke; and another pooch that’s literally just there to have puppies. Even Gerwig’s plucky agitator has her agency undercut by a crush on Atari that’s a little cute but mostly elicits a “yeah, sure, I guess?”  If ever there was a movie you could tell had an all-male writing team, this is the one.

Actor Jeff Goldblum arrived outside the Paramount Theatre for the Isle of Dogs red carpet premiere on Saturday, March 17. The film screening was part of the SXSW Film Festival. (Photo by Katherine Fan for Austin360.com/A-List)

PHOTOS: ‘Isle of Dogs’ premiere with Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Wes Anderson at SXSW 2018

The tone trends wicked in parts, including a trash furnace cliffhanger that’s left dangling too long for anyone who actually likes dogs. It would also be naive to not view “Isle of Dogs” through a Trump-era lens, what with its executive edicts and themes of exile, press suppression and disinformation, all in the name of power. Anderson also slips in a line about staged political protests that feels scorchingly pointed in 2018 (I heard titters in the theater) but also undercut the fantasy.

Anderson attempts a lot. When its story about dogs and kids goes small, “Isle of Dogs” does quite a few good tricks.

Grade: B

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban

“Isle of Dogs” hits theaters March 23.


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