Writer-director Wes Anderson's often brilliant, stop-motion animated feature, "Isle of Dogs," about a 12-year-old boy's search for his lost pup, packs its humor-filled, sociopolitical wisdom into 101 entertaining minutes like hard ice cream jack-hammered into a pint carton. Lose concentration for a second and you'll miss a manifesto, a dictum, a theory and perhaps two or three mini-treatises on government. It soon becomes clear that the bulk of its pontifications will be gleaned not in the theater, but in the den via successive screenings over the years.
Thus the best tack to take, if you can, is to sit back, relax and enjoy this genre heir to "Animal Farm" for its quirkily infatuating surface tale, allowing your brain's tumblers to bounce, adjust and absorb the subtextual, implied and exquisitely threaded hidden meanings at your own pace.
Don't worry, it'll all eventually fall into place. Besides, discovering minutiae you didn't first notice, whether it's the second, third or umpteenth viewing, is a charm unto itself, the cinematic equivalent of finding a ten dollar bill in the pocket of a coat you haven't worn in years.
The plot, while deceivingly simple, is a story of good and evil, set in a dystopian, fictionalized Japan in the near future. Mayor Kobayashi has just won election courtesy of a fear-spreading campaign alleging that the dog flu affecting the canine occupants will spread to Megasaki's human population if drastic action is not taken. Of course, the authoritarian manipulator of propaganda is keeping it hush-hush that Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), aided by his trusty assistant, Yoko-ono (Yoko Ono), is on the verge of a cure. The dogs must go!
Checking the film's production dates, we find its profferings uncannily ironic. Granted, while Machiavellian scheming for control plays over and over in the course of human events, some of auteur Anderson's characterizations are startlingly timely. Diving into the crucible of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, he spins a lazy Susan array of the devious methodologies power-hungry blackguards use to make it appear as if they're doing the people's will. Scanning the audience at the demagogue's rallies, it appears like folks are comatose in their obedience.
So it's no surprise that the great unwashed utter nary a peep when Kobayashi banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a decrepit, forlorn remnant of infrastructure that looks like what you see along the tracks as you travel by train through New Jersey's swamp/junkyard to New York City.
Emblematic of Kobayashi's conviction, Spots, the first pup to be deported, is the loyal pet of Atari Kobayashi, the orphaned, 12-year-old nephew and ward of the despot. Learning of this treachery, the kid hijacks a plane and plans a rescue, earning the sobriquet, Little Pilot.
Landing among the dogs that have settled the title holding pen, the Little Pilot, who is now being lauded by a suddenly invigorated citizenry back home, is met by a Steinbeckian cadre who, though initially suspect, accept Atari's altruistic mission. They don't know Spots or his whereabouts, though they've heard tell of any number of theories, including the rumor that a pack of cannibalistic curs rules on the other side of the island. Hostile at first, but ultimately stepping up to become Atari's Dog Friday is Chief, a self-described stray with a tale of his own.
Voiced with outcast authority by Bryan Cranston, Chief is Tramp, as in "Lady and the Tramp" (1955), reincarnated and politicized. The hobo swagger of the post-war mongrel is traded for a seasoned survivor of governmental oppression. Yet while he is cynical, we suspect there is that spark of hope, glimmering somewhere beneath his matted coat. The tacitly accepted leader of ragtag stalwarts, he is the isle's Pepe Le Moko, the romantic ruffian exiled to his canine Casbah.
So all we need is a Hedy Lamarr-like pooch to ignite his heroic potential. Enters stage left, Nutmeg, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the pedigree whose nobility cannot be diminished by the demeaning gulag into which she has been tossed. She knows stuff and, refuting gossip about herself, offers some advice concerning the unknown terrain Chief will be exploring in quest of Spots. He is smitten but respectful. However, I think if he could he'd echo Le Moko's adulating words to Lamarr's Gaby: "You're beautiful. That's easy to say. I know that others have told you. But what I'm telling you is different, see? For to me, you're more than that."
Hence, romance as the afflatus to social change is added to the adventure, political wit and astute muckraking that comprise this savvy, feature-length metaphor. What's more, agreeing with the recently departed Cynthia Heimel, who said "Dogs are us, only innocent," this mutt-veiled look into human behavior uses the Orwellian ploy not only to advance its grand civics lesson, but also to sing a humorously loving paean to man and woman's best friend.
"Isle of Dogs," rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Picture's release directed by Wes Anderson and stars the voices of Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber. Running time: 101 minutes
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