Review – A Howling Success (“Isle Of Dogs”)

There’s no denying it, Wes Anderson makes strange films. From his odd Grand Budapest Hotel to his delightfully quirky The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, his movies are guaranteed to be usual, weird, and very entertaining. This is his second stop-motion animated movie since his brilliant 2009 movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the fictional futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki, a dog flu virus has spread throughout the population causing cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island, an archipelago a few miles away, despite the fact that Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) being this close finding a cure. As a sign of non-favoritism, the first dog to be sent is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the pet & companion of Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the 12-year-old ward of the mayor, and who is also electronically linked (via headset) to his dog for communication.

Fast-forward six months later and Atari, desperate for his pooch, steals a mini-plane and crashes it on Trash Island to find Spots. He’s rescued by five dogs: leader Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), always hearing rumors Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and unofficial leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), the only stray dog in this pack. They decide to help Atari locate Spots, although Chief doesn’t like to fraternize with humans. Problems arise when the mayor sends a rescue team after the boy using lethal robot dogs (think Doctor Who’s mechanical K-9 and the deadly robot dogs in Black Mirror’s Metalhead episode combined) to retrieve Atari.

After a skirmish, the pack seek guidance from the oldest & wisest dogs on the island, Jupiter and Oracle (F. Murray Abraham & Tilda Swinton), who inform them of a possible Spots sighting on an isolated part of the island. Meanwhile, high school foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig)–who looks like a teenage Annie Warbucks–figures out the nefarious plot by the mayor to eradicate all the dogs, even though there is a cure for them. She rallies a protest of Pro-Dog supporters behind her, but will she be too late?

Back on Trash Island, the pack gets separated, leaving Atari and Chief to fend for themselves. Later, the two find out some startling news about Chief, Spots and a pack of other dogs that were once experimented on. Written, co-produced, and directed by Anderson, this above-average movie is tantalizing as much as it is eye-candy with it’s dazzling stop-motion animation. What’s even crazier is Anderson’s use of leaving in as much Japanese language possible, having some translation or none at all. There are no subtitles here, only translators, a few English-speaking characters, and all the dogs who speak English.

Loaded with an impressive cast, including Anderson’s favorites (Balaban, Murray, Norton), they all give their voice-over best, with Cranston giving a remarkable performance, especially when he delivers a heart-breaking monologue about his life as a stray. The story and script is pure Anderson and, if you’ve seen any of his other movies, you know what I mean. Oddly structured, story-jumping parallels, and a quirky blend of real-life adventures interwoven with a pack of dogs and their lives. The dialogue overlaps and resonates with delicious banter you wouldn’t expect from your typical doggy. Don’t even try to understand what you’re watching, just sit back and enjoy the wonderful weirdness.

Lastly, not enough can be said about the last bastion of pure craftsmanship: stop-motion animation. Three Mills Studios in London did the daunting task of meticulously moving these 2200 hand-made puppets inch-by-inch (taking almost two years!) to create the seamless movement you see on the screen, using no CGI and no cartoons (except for the ‘televised’ sections). But even with some brilliant looking stop-motion movies, you can still get some clunkers (Boxtrolls, Curse of the Were-Rabbit) because of a bad script. This one, plus others like it (ParaNorman, Chicken Run, Kubo & the Two Strings) have a great script and look awesome as well. 

Oliver & Company (1988)
A kid trying to rescue their favorite pet against all odds? How about with a dog called Dodger and a kitten called Oliver? Back when Disney animation was at a low point, this amusing standard animation and partially computer rendered feature film came out with some rather catchy tunes by Billy Joel.
Loosely based on Charles Dickens immortal Oliver Twist, an orphaned kitten named Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) wanders the busy NYC streets and meets a laid-back Jack Russel Terrier named Dodger (Joel) who assists him in stealing food. Oliver follows Dodger and meets his owner, a shabbily dressed and goofy pickpocket named Fagin (Dom Deluise) and his friends: Tito the Chihuahua (Cheech Marin), Einstein the Great Dane (Richard Mulligan), Rita the Afghan (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and Francis the English bulldog (Roscoe Lee Browne).
Fagin explains that he is running out of time to repay the money he borrowed from ruthless loan shark, Sykes (Robert Loggia). Sykes told Fagin it must be paid back in three days, or else! Sykes’ two dobermans, Roscoe and DeSoto attack Oliver, but he is defended by Fagin’s dogs. The next day, Oliver hits the streets with his new gang, but is “caught” and taken home by wealthy little girl named Jenny Foxworth (Natalie Gregory) and her butler, Winston. After she adopts Oliver out of loneliness, Georgette (Bette Midler), her pompous and pampered poodle, is enraged and jealous of his presence and wants him removed from the household.

Dodger and the others manage to grab Oliver, but he doesn’t want to leave, much to Dodger’s dismay. However, Fagin concocts a plan to steal Oliver and send Jenny a ransom note, proudly telling Sykes of this. But when Fagin meets up with Jenny, he’s shocked she’s only a child, and his conscience gets the better of him, and he returns Oliver freely. Just then, Sykes shows up and kidnaps Jenny, intending to ransom her instead, declaring Fagin’s debt paid. This act of cruelty rallies all the dogs together to give chase after Sykes and his dobermans into the NYC subway tunnels to save Jenny and put and end to Sykes.

Naturally, there’s the requisite happy ending with all the dogs getting a proper home with Jenny’s rich family and not ending up on a Korean BBQ menu somewhere. Okay, so the screenplay by Tim Disney, James Mangold, and Jim Cox wasn’t exactly Shakespeare; it was Dickens, and that was part of the problem. With an instantly recognizable plot, the ‘dog-buddy’ movie had no pizzazz to it and fizzled at the box office, despite the mighty Disney promotional machine at the helm. The soundtrack was actually better, featuring music by Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Bette Midler, and Ruth Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters).

As far as the animation goes, this was a time of experimentation with the animation dept who were dabbling in early CGI with their The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron, but it wouldn’t be until 1995 when Pixar perfected it with Toy Story, so in 1988 rendering was crude at best. It’s not the best Disney animation, but at least the voice-over work is great. It was the following year, 1989, they got their heads together and started whipping out amazing “classics” like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.

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