The crowded little universe of Wes Anderson's latest movie is an amusing place to visit, if not necessarily a bucket-list destination. Isle of Dogs is the director's second stop-motion animated feature (after the 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox), and it is both a sweet, uh, underdog story and a fond celebration of Japanese culture—the great movies (especially Kurosawa's), the wood-block designs, the mad taiko drumming. (The score, by Alexandre Desplat – back for another go-round in Wes World – is a really rousing synthesis of taiko tub-thumping and western instrumentation.) There's quite a bit of untranslated Japanese in the picture (it doesn't matter, you get the gist), but the many dogs on hand all speak English. Cute.
The movie begins, quite rightly, with a bit of dog history. "Centuries ago," we're told, "free dogs roamed the land." Then they "clashed with cat-loving people" and "bloody dog wars" ensued and "dogs became enslaved" (i.e., became pets). I'm prepared to believe that this is pretty much how that deal went down.
Then the story gets underway and we're transported to the fictitious city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future. It's an unhappy time: An epidemic of dog flu has begun spreading to the human populace, and shady Mayor Kobayashi has decreed that all of the city's dogs must be quarantined on Trash Island, a vast offshore dump. As a token of his egalitarian intentions, he packs off his own hound, Spots, first. This doesn't sit well with Kobayashi's ward, 12-year-old Atari, for whom Spots is both friend and protector. So Atari hijacks a propeller airplane, as any of us might, and flies to Trash Island to retrieve his quadrupedal pal. Who proves very hard to find.
The movie's pleasures revolve around Anderson's obsessively meticulous shot designs (there's a sushi-making scene that must rank fairly high on any list of classic Wes-iana) and some exceptionally charming voice work by a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray (of course), Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and (whew) Liev Schreiber. Anderson's screenplay, crafted with input from Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura, is naturally structured as a quest. We follow Atari and a group of dogs who've befriended him as they make their way around Trash Island in search of the missing Spots. En route, we hear tell of a tribe of deadly cannibal dogs, share some tense moments with a trash compactor, and encounter a flashback to something called "The Secret Tooth." It's fun.
The dogs themselves—chief among them the sullen-but-noble Chief (Cranston) – have some droll lines. Acknowledging that he himself is a stray, Chief muses, "but aren't we all, in the final analysis?" On the other hand, in a moment of exasperation he berates his canine companions with a roar: "I've seen cats with more balls than you dogs!"
The movie sputters a bit whenever the action shifts back to Megasaki City, where we keep checking in on a subplot featuring an American high-school exchange student named Tracy (Gerwig), who's leading her schoolmates in a campaign to bring down the corrupt Kobayashi. I'm surprised Anderson thought it wise to suggest that the mild-mannered Japanese we see need to be saved by a fearless white person. Especially since he's already certain to be targeted with the usual bogus charges of "cultural appropriation." Stay tuned.
Pacific Rim: Uprising
The 2013 Pacific Rim was a fun movie—a blockbuster inflation of all those old Japanese kaiju cheapies featuring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and other rampaging beasties. Plus it had giant robots, and fanboy director Guillermo del Toro at the controls. There wasn't a lot not to like.
Pacific Rim did okay business in this country, but it really cleaned up in China—which I think explains why we're suddenly confronted with a five-years-later sequel that was partly filmed in China and is produced in part by a company, Legendary Pictures, that is now owned by a Chinese conglomerate. I mean, how many people were really asking for Pacific Rim: Uprising?
The movie has a couple things going for it. First there's John Boyega, who exudes even more star power here than he does in the Star Wars films. He plays Jake Pentecost, son of the late General Stacker Pentecost, who you'll recall was played by star-power supremo Idris Elba in the first movie. Jake is disgracing the family name as a low-life scavenger of parts from decommissioned Jaegers, as the good-guy robots are called. For reasons not worth going into, Jake finds himself recruited as a trainer with the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps, which prevailed over a nasty kaiju invasion through a breach in the ocean floor 10 years ago, and has remained on tippy-toe alert ever since.
At the PPDC home base in Sydney, Jake notes the unwelcome presence of an old antagonist, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, operating on cruise control throughout) and does his best to assist a teenage cadet named Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), who dreams of becoming a Jaeger pilot and kicking massive amounts of kaiju butt. There's also a designated babe named Jules (Adria Arjona), who's on hand to make vague love eyes at Jake and Nate in a movie that has no interest in love eyes at all. There are three returnees from the first film, too: Rinko Kikuchi as Jake's adoptive sister, Mako Mori, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the comic-relief sci-guys Geiszler and Gottlieb (although Geiszler is no longer as comical as he once was). There's a new element, too—an evil industrial entity called the Shao Corporation, which is headed by the fabulously icy Jing Tian.
None of that really matters, though, once a new kaiju invasion commences, with flubbery monsters once again bursting up from the ocean floor and huge klankety Jaegers wading out to bat them around. This is the rest of the movie, basically: robots vs. monsters, monsters vs. robots, and acres of collapsing architecture at every turn. Over and over and over. I don't think there's a single shot in this movie that isn't cluttered with CGI—not just in the battle sequences, but even in non-battle moments when everybody's logged onto the sort of holographic computer technology that just hangs in the air in front of you. The movie suffocates your eyes.
Director Steven S. DeKnight is a TV guy and he does a serviceable job here. (Guillermo del Toro is only a producer on this film.) But the movie, especially in its later stages, is clamorously dull and oppressively repetitive. There's no point in wondering if some other director could have done it better when it's crystal clear there was no need for it to be done at all.