Political Subtext In Wes Anderson's 'Isle Of Dogs' Is More Bark Than Bite

Mar 23, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 8:07 pm
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Wes Anderson's new animated puppet movie is called "Isle Of Dogs." I'm saying that carefully because if you say "Isle Of Dogs" quickly, it comes out sounding a lot like I love dogs. And of course I only feel OK about dogs, but Wes Anderson really likes them. Critic Bob Mondello says the director is also fond of movie classics.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Filmmaker Wes Anderson makes contraptions as much as he makes movies, little cinematic worlds that look as if they've been conceived as dollhouses and that operate by their own peculiar rules. Think "Fantastic Mr. Fox" or "The Grand Budapest Hotel." And then think again because this one is, well, more so. It asks you to imagine a Japanese city where dogs have been banned after an outbreak of snout fever. The mayor, a dead ringer for "Seven Samurai" star Toshiro Mifune...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

KUNICHI NOMURA: (As Mayor Kobayashi, speaking Japanese).

MONDELLO: ...Has exiled all dogs to an offshore garbage dump that's a dead ringer for the one in Pixar's "Wall-E." It's called Trash Island, and it's populated entirely by dogs - hungry, grouchy dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

EDWARD NORTON: (As Rex) I don't think I can stomach any more of this garbage.

BOB BALABAN: (As King) Exactly.

BILL MURRAY: (As Boss) Same here.

JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As Duke) Took the words out of my mouth.

MONDELLO: An on-screen note says that while human speech won't be translated, all barking will be rendered in English - helpful when, say, dogs approach a bag of fresh garbage, spoiling for a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

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.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm not sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right.

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.

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

MONDELLO: That last voice is Bryan Cranston, top dog among the film's best-in-show vocal talent - Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

CRANSTON: (As Chief) You're Rex. You're King. You're Duke. You're Boss. I'm Chief. We're a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs.

MONDELLO: Indestructible to a point - the mayor has decided to rid even Trash Island of dogs, a plan that has his 12-year-old ward, Atari, desperately crash landing a turbo prop plane on the island...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

KOYU RANKIN: (As Atari, speaking Japanese).

MONDELLO: ...To save his exiled pooch Spots.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

RANKIN: (As Atari, speaking Japanese).

MONDELLO: The visual style for all this is a mix of retro robotics, origami, 19th century Japanese woodcuts, 20th century model train sets and something I'm hesitant to call pup-petry (ph), but I kind of can't resist - handmade hounds surrounded by trash detailed enough to make you want to stop the stop-action entirely so you can examine, say, a doggie crate mountain or a hideout constructed of cast-off sake bottles or the sheen of a former show dog's once-silky coat. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Nutmeg...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nutmeg) Will you help him...

MONDELLO: ...Is Lady to Chief's Tramp.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

JOHANSSON: (As Nutmeg) ...The little pilot?

MONDELLO: And Chief is Bogie to her Bacall.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

CRANSTON: (As Chief) Why should I?

JOHANSSON: (As Nutmeg) Because he's a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those.

MONDELLO: For all the sly movie jokes and intricate visuals, the one thing this film isn't is cutesie. These mutts are scruffy critters who absolutely look like they've been living on a trash heap. They have matted fur, fleas, scabs from fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLE OF DOGS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Sheesh, Igor, I think he chewed your ear off.

MONDELLO: There's also a political subtext that's unusual for Wes Anderson - an anti-science government hiding the findings of its own scientists, a militaristic leader trying to tamp down student protests - nothing dogmatic, more bark than bite perhaps. But it's there. On the other paw, you can enjoy the film just for its laid-back vocals, toybox visuals and quirky haikus that never descend into - forgive me - doggerel. In case I've not made it clear, I love "Isle Of Dogs." I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.