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Recently, Turner Classic Movies broadcast a collection of quirky shorts from the 1930s and ’40s known as “Puppetoons.” Created by George Pal, the director who would later go on make War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, these little-known, super-stylized, mostly European-produced shorts are considered milestones of stop-motion animation.
Literally thousands of “figures” were carved from wood, each minutely different, to produce characters that, when filmed one frame at a time and screened back at 24 frames per second, created a stunningly fluid, often surreal cacophony of perpetual, improbable motion. Stop-motion was nothing new, of course, but Pal elevated it to a new, ridiculously obsessive level. The Puppetoons, apart from some disconcerting racial insensitivities that were unfortunate harbingers of the times, are small works of jaw-dropping animated theatrics.
Over the years, not much has changed in the way in which stop-motion is produced. It’s a long, laborious process, even with the assist of modern-day technology. And it takes a specific mindset, an almost extremist (read: masochistic) dedication to create a 100-minute feature. So it’s especially notable when a major director takes it on. Tim Burton has ventured into the painstaking waters several times — both as producer on Nightmare Before Christmas and as director on The Corpse Bride — but he got his start as an animator, so it’s in his DNA, one could say.
Less obvious is a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, whose films are often wild joyrides, filled with equal parts misanthropy and glee, and more often than not, huge emotional vacancies needing to be filled. But Anderson is nothing if not a playful filmmaker. His human movies feel like they belong in the animated genre — The Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially one long Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote chase — and they’re just damn fun to sit through. Anderson’s films strive to be bigger than life, boldly etched, and whenever possible, frenentic and unbridled. Delirium unchained.
Anderson waded into stop-motion territory in 2009 with the acclaimed The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel. He eschewed the smooth, slick plasticine visages typical of most stop-animated features for ones coated in fur. The abundant, animated hairs are forever in slight, kinetic motion, as though electrically charged. Add that to the slight herky-jerky quality of stop-motion and suddenly something amazing happens: the “puppets” connect more authentically with audiences than hand-drawn or computer-generated counterparts. It’s the closest animation gets to duplicating reality, to creating life. And Anderson’s newest project, Isle of Dogs (★★★★½) is filled with so much life, you’ll almost forget you’re watching a masterpiece of art unfold before your eyes. You’re drawn in, fully, completely, assuredly.
With its slightly insane narrative, one that fills in blanks via flashback, Isle of Dogs is at once a dark comedy and a trenchant (if thin) political parable. Because our attachment to dogs is hard-wired and primal, the film automatically creates a deep, emotional warmth lacking from many of Anderson’s human-based works (Moonrise Kingdom being the exception). It amusingly appropriates Japanese culture in its aesthetics, and yet it does so respectfully and with deep, abiding regard. Most importantly, however, it presents us with an array of fully-realized characterizations that grab hold of our hearts and squeeze as hard as possible. It’s a rare cinematic breed — filled with almost too many wondrous details to absorb on a single viewing alone.
The basic story, by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, is set 20 years in the future, in a province of Japan where the dog population has run rampant. Outbreaks of “snout fever” and “dog flu” have given the dynastic Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) and his political cronies — cat-lovers, all — reason enough to banish all canines to Trash Island.
The fascist overtones aren’t politically subtle, but nor do they need to be: Anderson is in “wide brush stroke mode,” a comfort zone most of his films occupy, and yet he unearths nuance in the film’s design details and in the small, telling movements of the characters, even down to the simple blink of an eye.
The adventure lurches into high gear when Atari (Koyu Rankin) — who also happens to be the ward of the mayor — makes his way to Trash Island in search of his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber). He’s befriended by a forever chattering pack of alpha dogs — Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who feel a knee-jerk obligation to help Atari, a symbol of the masters they once adoringly served. Only one dog holds out — the stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who warns, rather plainly, “I bite.”
“Why should I help him?” says Chief to Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), an impeccably groomed show dog who knows “some tricks,” and who captures Chief’s interest.
“Because he’s a 12-year-old boy,” she responds. “Dogs love those.”
The journey undertaken by Chief and Atari is what powers the true emotional core of Isle of Dogs, and the build is masterful, direct, and rife with deeper meaning, like a perfectly crafted haiku.
The film has its dark moments (it’s really not made for kids, though most kids shouldn’t be too alarmed by it, given what they endure in cinema nowadays). For instance, a rallying cry from a rival political party intent on saving “man’s best friend” is met with murderous intent from the mayor’s administration in a scene involving sushi that is utterly mind-blowing to witness.
The vocal performances are perfect — no complaints here — even down to Tilda Swinton’s squealing, prophetic pug named, appropriately, Oracle. But the real heroics come from the team of animators who bring the stop-motion “puppets” to life. They are astonishing, rich, masterfully unique creations.
Anderson’s canny choice to film the dogs addressing the camera snout-on is nothing short of genius. In doing so, he ensures we don’t miss a single expression — or, for that matter, delicately animated teardrop. And by the end of Isle of Dogs, I suspect there won’t be a dry eye in the house. At least not among dog lovers. Cat lovers, on the other hand, will have to wait for a sequel.
Isle of Dogs is rated PG-13 and opens Friday, March 23, at area theaters. Visit Fandango.com.
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