JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Isle of Dogs | Won't You Be my Neighbour (Directors: Wes Anderson, Morgan Neville) - December 4, 2018

Isle of Dogs | Won't You Be my Neighbour

4.5 4.5

Reviewed for the 2019 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival
Two different appraoches to the Land of Make Believe

Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson
101 minutes, Four and one half stars

Man’s best metaphor

Leave it to the wonderfully over-inventive talents of Wes Anderson to cobble together an animated feature that brings new meaning to “going to the dogs”.

Set in Japan (where else to spin the stories of a “Boy Samurai”), the film is a cautionary tale on political despots in any part of today’s uneasy world.

Happily, talking animals are so commonplace that few will question the ability of strays and show dogs alike to emphatically say what’s on their minds (it falls to the humans in the narrative to have to find their voices through simultaneous translation).

But what voices are on call: Bryan Cranston is superb bringing the nuance to Chief “I bite”, the renegade of the dogs who tarts up beautifully after a bath and convincingly morphs from tribal outcast to leader of the pack; playing the stylish Nutmeg, Scarlett Johansson easily proves she’s a “trick” to be reckoned with; Kunicki Nomura is readily despicable as the corrupt mayor and animal hater while his courageous ward (with precious few words in English), Koyu Rankin, uses tenor and tone to make his points in any language; as Tracy Walker—the young foreign student from Ohio who won’t take yes for an answer—Greta Gerwig excels as the conscience and motivator of the younger set.

As always, composer Alexandre Desplat’s drum-infused score moves the visual treats to their next level (the limited vocal interventions, not so much).

With rotting garbage, a government-led murder-by-suicide (er, hello there Mohammed bin Salman), and ferocious technology stymied by a hacker, this production seems much more like a report card on our current circumstances than an entertainment that the children will love.


Won't You Be my Neighbour
Morgan Neville
94 minutes, Four stars

The most naïve man in the neighbourhood

With 1,765 shows to his credit (not including the “never caught on” adult version, Old Friends, New Friends), I cannot recall ever sitting through an entire episode of the people, puppets, music and messages (most notably “all of you are special”) that were the essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood.

Seeing this lovingly crafted documentary left me with no regrets, save and except for Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons symbolically washing his feet in the same tub of water as Fred Rogers: no one could imagine the affable, strong voiced African-American cop was gay), the visit by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and—most poignantly—the affecting meet up with Koko the gorilla.

The film is well-structured collage of Mr. Rogers doing his thing, interspersed with numerous insights from his family (wife Joanne, sons John and Jim) along with a covey of colleagues sharing the memories of the man who sported cardigans as still another way of soothing his young viewers.

The notion of “love thy neighbour” permeates the TV pastor’s work, to the point of mysticism. We learn that 143 is a numerical short form for I (1) Love (4) You (3)—but also Rogers’ adult weight. Hmm. This is especially telling given that “Fat Freddy”as he was known in his youth—was the subject of much bullying from the “friends” in his schoolyard neighbourhood. So don’t get mad, get even: shed those pounds then shame the “bad” kids as an unending crusade.

Whether fighting for PBS funding on Capitol Hill, or doing a special week on why kids shouldn’t emulate their superheroes and jump off buildings (some actually dying in the process), Rogers fearlessly puts in on himself to warn, shape and coddle his daily audience. Surely the world would become a better place for this celebration of acceptance and kindness.

But beyond public television, there was/is a universe of for-profit kids’ shows that revel in a super-fast speed, all manner of calamities along with copious amounts of death and destruction. With both approaches likely entering the malleable minds of America’s youth for decades since 1968, how would these impressionable minds turn out in the “real” world?

Would Rogers’ mantra “I like you as you are” also apply to the bullies-in-training/action that are still rearing their ugly deeds around the world today? In Canada, look no further than the recent hazing incidents at St. Michael Catholic School: “praise the Lord, pass the broomstick.”

Even in retirement, PBS went back to the well of decency by asking Rogers to do a few “make sense of this” clips after the devastation of 9/11. Reading through the lines of his stoic visage and delivery, it is clear that the world of love and friendship that drove every day of his considerable life has made little difference to the vast majority of people who believe that their neighbourhood is better than yours.

Little wonder there has been no successor. JWR

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