I unconditionally love Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson is one of the great auteurs of our time.  He creates his own rules. After seeing just one or two of his films, you can instantly recognize his style. His characters are intense but restrained.  His actors deliver their lines with just enough emphasis to feel they mean what they are saying, but no more than is necessary.  The animators do a first-rate job of capturing the same feeling one gets from his live actors.  It is a blessing to have a talent like this working in the medium of animation.  This is the best dog movie, of any kind, since Lady and the Tramp.

Wes Anderson’s storytelling is not constrained by any one genre.  Isle of Dogs is a stylish art film, a family-friendly story of a boy and his dog, a powerful commentary on current politics, a light-hearted homage to Japanese culture filtered through his peculiar lens. The Japanese city of Megasaki, and the titular island, is a brutal world where canine pets are banished to a wasteland that has suffered multiple disasters.  It features a species ravaged by an epidemic, conspiracies, starvation, cannibalism and dog catchers who have not only the proverbial giant nets but electric cattle prods as well.  It features more characters with teary eyes than any other movie I can recall.

But it is also funny.  To not have humor would make this movie a much harder pill to swallow.  The jokes and gags are subtle and evenly spaced throughout the film.  They aren’t too precious.  Anderson rejects naturalism in his storytelling.  The compositions predominately have actors facing directly into the camera. That creates a connection to the characters that you wouldn’t get with normal staging.  Their reactions are often understated, even when things are going very badly. That invokes a Keatonesque stoicism in confronting the life and death struggles. In the sample below, there is a fight between two packs of dogs. After the symmetrical staging of the dogs, it goes from a mostly natural growling and posturing to a thoughtful attempt at reasoning one might not even find among humans.  When that fails and the fight happens, the visual image of a noisy dust cloud with legs and tails is a cartoony delight.  A dog losing an ear is no big deal.  It’s dramatic, unpredictable and comic all in one scene.

MINOR SPOILERS BELOW.

In a world as grim as this, Anderson gives us a boy who risks his life for his dog, a feral dog who learn to love and fetch sticks, and children who stand up to power.   In comedies, characters often get married. In Isle of Dogs, a mate is taken and puppies born. Love overcomes all.  It is a story of great spirit in the face of an apparently hopeless existence.

Critics who dislike the film generally seem to be offended in terms of political correctness.  For example, the young woman who leads the revolt against the Megasaki mayor is an American exchange student. It would have better served the story to have her also be Japanese. Still, I couldn’t refute the value of this movie based on things like that.

Finally, if you hadn’t noticed, the title, Isle of Dogs, sounds exactly like saying “I love dogs”

Go see it in the theater as soon as you can.

The Essential Goofy

Classic Goofy model sheet

 

Here is a great video about Walt Disney’s Goofy character. Art Babbitt wrote notes about Goofy for the animators to think about when working on him. The notes form the narration over some classic Goofy clips.  It is an invaluable look into how well thought out Disney’s characters are.  They include concepts of both his interior mental operation, and how his body should be posed and moved. Putting these ideas into words helps define how a character is different from others and helps keep them consistent.

 

Dr. Kill and Mr. Chance

I just ran across this zany ten-year-old short film, Dr. Kill & Mr. Chance. It’s a live action short built on a classic cartoon aesthetic.  It was all shot on blue screen, with the background and effects added.  It is reminiscent of the Jim Carrey movie, The Mask.  The director, Jean-Yves Chalangeas, plays the bad guy, Dr. Kill.   Mr. Chance is the kind of character who has luck on his side.  I wrote about these types in my post, The Lucky Character.  The storyline is very much like the roadrunner and coyote cartoons, where everything goes wrong for the bad guy.  Dr. Kill is apparently an assassin, and Mr. Lucky is his target, but there is no other information than that, so we don’t know why he’s sent to kill such an apparently nice guy.  At least the Coyote has the motivation of being hungry.

I would not describe this film as successful. But I do appreciate the effort, and it encourages me to wonder how this sort of thing could work. Even The Mask, with top talent involved, had its shortcomings. I think trying to recreate Tex Avery style in a realistic environment is not very appealing.  The curvy buildings and garish colors are just weird. There are some modern live-action films with extreme slapstick that are way funnier.  The films of Stephen Chow, such as Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, are great examples.

There is one curious moment.  A bundle of dynamite with a lit fuse comes into the story. Mr. Chance uses it to light a cigarette, then a cigar, and finally a huge joint. That was the one moment where I thought it could develop into something interesting.  I would rebuild the story around that, and have Mr. Chance be a likable stoner, and Dr. Kill be Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  At least it would be relevant and make more sense.

It appears they wanted this to be the first in a series, but the website is no longer active.  Here is a making-of video with English subtitles.

 

Massage comedy

I had noticed that massage was something that turned up regularly in physical comedy.  Of course, it’s pure physical interaction, usually involving an aggressive masseuse or masseur.  Patients, or clients, can be incredibly pleased, awkwardly uncomfortable, or bent into pretzel shapes.  Often, the person giving the rubdown is not who they think they are and are behaving badly. I had been keeping a list of YouTube videos with funny massage scenes for future reference.

Recently, master animator Richard Williams posted this tweet about the upcoming Aardman film Early Man.

If Williams thinks it’s a stunning comic achievement, he’s got me even more excited than I was already.  It appears the massage happens in the bathtub, judging by this promotional image.

Early man massage

I had time today, so I assembled a dozen or so clips of funny massage scenes from movies, TV, and cartoons.  I hope you like it.  If you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel please do.  And check out some of my other video essays on comedy in animation.

 

Osamu Tezuka’s Broken Down Film

Here is Osamu Tezuka’s short “Broken Down Film.” I saw this way back in college, and now I think it’s a little dated. I wonder how many kids would understand the joke about the hair in the gate of the projector.  There are some pauses that run a little long for short attention span types. Still, I think this is a must see for anyone for appreciates silent comedy and animation.

 

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