Jack Handey of Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts,” fame once had a great prank idea for kids, guaranteed to traumatize them for life: i.e. driving them to the aftermath of a fire, and telling them that Disneyland – their original destination – had burnt down. (And if it was late, driving them back home without going to the real Disneyland.)
Or you could simply make them sit through the first twenty minutes of “Isle of Dogs.” Boomers had Bambi’s mother being shot by hunters on the big screen to make them bawl. Gen-Xers had Atreyu’s beloved horse drowning in the Swamp of Sadness to reduce them to a puddle. Now here comes a movie guaranteed to have the current generation of youngsters sobbing hard enough to melt their Milk Duds – or so I first thought. It does get better, but whether this will erase the scars it first inflicts on sensitive kids might be questionable. (Of course, adult viewers being fully mature and hardened will not have this problem – right?)
Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” his new stop motion film, has a grim kickoff indeed. The setting is Japan where an evil leader (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) decides to deal with a virulent strain of canine flu by shipping all the dogs to an isle full of garbage and radioactive waste. His twelve-year-old nephew (Koyu Rankin) who Liev adopted as an orphan several years ago, is distraught at losing his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sallies forth on an airplane which crashes onto Trash Island. Here Koyu is befriended by a pack of dogs, including Chief (Bryan Cranston) who does not fetch or anything like that because he is a stray. The other dogs are former house pets, and for maximum heartstring tugging, we get a scene where they all discuss their favorite food. For a love interest, there’s the lovely Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) who doesn’t have much to do but does get a couple of scenes where she flirts with Bryan, the most romantic canine scene since Tramp and Lady fed each other spaghetti. The dogs and Koyu team up in order to vanquish evil, which makes for some sweet bonding and discovering of long-lost litter brothers. The dog kind, that is.
Back on the mainland, a serum is soon discovered to stamp out the canine flu, but this doesn’t mesh with Kunichi’s re-election plans, so this news is suppressed. However, an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig), who has a blonde Afro big enough to hide a St. Bernard in, enlists her peers in a quest to rescue the dogs. The story does – spoiler alert! – have a happy ending. Originally, I thought Wes Anderson might have had some buried trauma when it came to dogs, as both “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and “Moonrise Kingdom” have a scene where a canine meets an unfortunate violent demise. But “The Isle of Dogs,” ends with the heroes rewarded, the villains punished, and “levels of graft and corruption reduced to acceptable levels.”
“The Isle of Dogs,” has plenty of Anderson stalwarts, all of whom do a great job. The movie is an unruly brew featuring Terry Gilliam-ish animation, insights into the dog-human bond, animal experimentation, a plot to exterminate dogs forever, a millennial protester who insists, “I must prove my conspiracy theory!”, haiku, and a last minute kidney transplant. It will definitely achieve one thing among fans and detractors alike: They will want to go home and hug their pets.