Animal acts: Between The Rock and a good movie
By: Matt Brunson
It probably doesn’t need to be reiterated, but here goes anyway. Despite a rating that allows for the admission of children, despite the animated nature of the piece, and despite the focus on our cuddly canine companions, Isle of Dogs (three and a half out of four stars) is decidedly not one for the kiddies. In a pinch, parents are in fact probably better off taking their youngsters to Fifty Shades Freed than the latest from Wes Anderson — at least in that film, there are no shots of a dog’s skeletal remains, the result of nobody being able to get the poor mutt’s locked cage door open.
On the other hand, adults are encouraged to check out Isle of Dogs at their earliest convenience. Anderson’s first film since his grandly entertaining gem The Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling and heady achievement, employing quirky animation to relate its tale of a futuristic Japan in which all dogs have been confiscated to nearby Trash Island after a canine-related virus has swept through the country. The fascistic ruling class ultimately seeks to kill, not just quarantine, all dogs, with only a pro-dog professor (Akira Ito), his dedicated assistant (Yoko Ono!) and his courageous students seeking to thwart this insidious agenda. For his part, a little boy named Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) misses his dog Spots and sets out to Trash Island on a rescue mission. Upon arrival, he encounters resistance from a gruff stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston) but receives assistance from a quartet of former pets (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban).
Naturally, the one student who rallies the others to save the dogs is American (Greta Gerwig), but aside from this opening for charges against the usual “white savior” syndrome exhibited in movies, Isle of Dogs is otherwise too fantastical to be compared to any real-world parallels. The stop-motion animation is even more impressive than that displayed in Anderson’s previous romp in this realm, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the multi-faceted plot continually branches out in imaginative and unexpected ways.
Canines will understandably object to the phrase, but Isle of Dogs is clearly the cat’s meow.
CRITICS HAVE OFTEN been accused of unfairly dissing a movie because it’s not the one they imagined in their head, placing the finished product at a disadvantage for not satisfying any preconceived notions of where the story should have gone.
Perhaps there’s some validity in that charge. Take, for instance, the new Dwayne Johnson action spectacular Rampage (two out of four stars). It’s based on a 1980s video game in which an enormous ape, an oversized wolf and a gigantic reptile wreak havoc on various American cities. A film version is naturally going to follow suit, but that nevertheless didn’t prevent me from wanting the filmmakers to retain the gorilla and axe the other critters. It wouldn’t have made for a very faithful movie, but it might have made for a more involving one.
That’s basically because the heart of this picture rests in the relationship between Davis Okoye (Johnson), a primatologist at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary, and George, an albino silverback gorilla who basically qualifies as the human-hating Davis’s BFF. Through some serious pilfering from Mighty Joe Young, the early sequences establish a nice rapport between Davis and George (Jason Liles is the actor under the motion-capture CGI), and watching these two pal around in the manner of Clint and Clyde in Every Which Way But Loose wouldn’t be the worse way to spend two hours (and like Clyde, George also has a predilection for flipping that middle finger).
Unfortunately for George, he’s exposed to a serum initially developed by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to aid humankind but nabbed by ruthless CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Ackerman) to sell as a biological weapon. The serum, which not only super-sizes its recipients but also triggers rage, ends up also infecting a wolf and an alligator. The three beastly behemoths then head to Chicago, with only Davis, Kate and a gregarious government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, pouring a thick Southern accent onto his characterization as if it were syrup on pancakes) there to stop them from completely leveling the city.
As far as video-game adaptations go, Rampage is one of the better ones, although that of course isn’t really saying anything. An amusing gag or quip manages to occasionally stick the landing, but the plot particulars are rarely more developed than those found in, well, an arcade game. Johnson coasts on his charm, the talented Harris (superb in Moonlight) is largely wasted, and Ackerman is an interesting choice to play a villain (far less successful is Jake Lacy as her simple-minded brother and partner-in-crime). George is a magnificent visual effect, but the other monsters are rather ridiculous, and watching them demolish buildings (and each other) during the climax makes for a particularly protracted slog.
Rampage aspires to be dumb fun, and that’s fine — we can always use films of that nature. It’s just a shame the fun too often takes a backseat to the dumb.