Chuck Koplinski | 'Isle' a doggedly wondrous tale

Chuck Koplinski | 'Isle' a doggedly wondrous tale

Anyone who has ever had a dog has probably thought at one time or another, "I wonder what he's thinking? What would he say if he could talk?"

As for our beagle, Gracie, I'm quite sure she would talk about her excitement when she knocks over the trash can to find whatever culinary treats we've discarded and agree with me that the White Sox's rebuild process is taking a bit too long. I could be wrong. I'm pretty sure that my son would posit that Gracie would speak intelligently about soccer and compliment his skills at every turn, while my wife would envision her telling her how much she loved her.

What we project our dogs' personality to be is a personal, private thing, and I couldn't help but think that director Wes Anderson must have had great fun assigning human characteristics to the myriad canine creatures in his newest feature "Isle of Dogs." Supposedly inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the stop-motion Christmas television special from the 1960s, the film is a loving tribute to dogs of all sorts of shapes, sizes and temperaments, obviously tailored to the voice talents of many of his long-time collaborators.

Like many movies concerning dogs and humans, "Isle of Dogs" revolves around the separation of a loving master and their faithful pet. No one falls down a well this time out; instead, a mysterious, simultaneous outbreak of canine maladies has broken out in Megasari City, forcing its mayor (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) to exile all dogs to Trash Island, an elaborate, man-made atoll already inhabited by feral pooches and the home of a mysterious industrial factory. Despondent that he has been separated from his dog Spots, the mayor's nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the quarantined area to save his friend, only to crash-land there, where he's watched over by a group of five mangy mutts.

The political subtext is obvious from the start and becomes even more timely when it's revealed that an evil corporation is behind the canine hysteria (they want to replace real dogs with their own robotic ones). This is a bit heavy-handed, and the film's story ends up being a bit thin, repetition giving way to invention as there are more than a few moments where Anderson seems to be narratively spinning his wheels.

Be that as it may, the director's trademark wry sense of humor shines throughout, helping us overlook the movie's flaws. The five central dogs — tough pooch Chief (Bryan Cranston), logical Rex (Edward Norton), gossip-monger Duke (Jeff Goldblum), droll Boss (Bill Murray) and worry-wart King (Bob Balaban) — are brought to life in the performers' own distinct manner, producing one laugh after another with their enthusiastic delivery of the dogs' opposing views. A sense of anticipation sets in whenever they gather to discuss a problem or issue, and in these moments, Anderson and his cast do not disappoint.

Scarlett Johanson's Nutmeg, a former show dog, appears far too briefly, she and Chief generating a "Lady and the Tramp" vibe I wish had been expanded upon. F. Murray Abraham's sonorous tones are used for Jupiter, the oldest and wisest of all the dogs, while Courtney B. Vance's assured narration keeps the story moving.

Much like his Oscar-nominated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," this film is meticulously rendered and will require multiple viewings in order to take in all that Anderson offers. Yet, in the end, like the best of the director's movies, this one has heart, and while the loving bond between humans and dogs has been portrayed often, rarely has it been done with the deft touch present here. Anderson knows not to lay the sentiment on too thick, and this approach makes an oft-told theme seem new.

'Isle of Dogs' (★★★1/2 out of four)

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Akira Takayama, Great Gerwig, Frances McDormand and Scarlett Johansson.

Directed Wes Anderson; produced by Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin and Anderson; screenplay by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura and Anderson.

A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 (thematic elements and violent images). At the Art Theater and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also in theaters

Ponderous tone, pace sinks "Chappaquiddick." (★★ out of four). John Cullen's "Chappaquiddick" is a film that's long overdue.

This recounting of the tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne and Sen. Ted Kennedy's involvement in it couldn't be more timely, what with today's constant manipulation of the media by the powers-that-be.

The filmmaker covers all of the familiar points of this case in a workman-like, albeit cursory manner that manages to still prove intriguing despite Cullen's ponderous pace and heavy-handed approach. No, this material is so damn interesting even a misguided approach can't make it boring, though in the end, the result suggests a more meaningful, fuller telling of this story was possible.

Covering the week of July 18-25, 1969, the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations employed by the Kennedy family and their highly paid lackeys to, at the most, salvage the senator’s career and, at the least, keep him out of jail. That they were able to do both shows just how influential they were as the facts surrounding the case were damning.

On the evening of the 18th, Kennedy (a very good Jason Clarke) left a party being held at a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island with Kopechne, a young woman who had worked on his brother Robert’s presidential campaign. Soon after, the car they were in plunged into a nearby lake; Kennedy escaped and swam to safety, while Kopechne drowned sometime later that night. The senator left the scene of the accident and did not report it until the next morning, suspicious behavior that suggested more was afoot than a simple accident.

The script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan employs its fair share of conjecture in filling in the gaps between what the public saw and what occurred behind closed doors. We see Kennedy drinking heavily the night of the incident — something he denied occurred — as well as his father’s cronies, Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), and Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) among others, calling in favors, making promises and finessing the press, all to try and get ahead of the story as well as produce the proper spin to salvage Kennedy’s reputation. All of this is the most fascinating part of the film, and while a boatload of denials would surely be issued regarding this, if any of the key players were still alive, it all has a ring of truth to it.

The compelling nature of the story makes Cullen’s approach so frustrating. Moments shown in slow motion to underscore the gravity of events, ominous music by composer Garth Stevenson and prolonged dramatic pauses call attention to serious moments that simply aren’t needed. These devices do nothing but slow the film down and ultimately border on parody, they occur so frequently. Unfortunately, Cullen doesn’t get out of his own way, and the result is a movie that’s sorely lacking where fidelity and tact are concerned.

No, a more in-depth look, along the lines of the true-life Fox mini-series “American Crime Story” would be better suited to cover the nuances of this story and would allow a more thorough approach that would be far more compelling.

As it is, "Chappaquiddick" sinks under the weight of its misguided approach.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on ­Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at

Topics (1):Film