Isle of Dogs and Wes Anderson’s Wild Animations

Copyright © 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

I love Wes Anderson movies. They’re the epitome of quirky American cinema, but there’s a lot of heart in those stories and some pretty clever cinematography at work, as is Anderson’s style. When you see a lot of yellow? That’s Wes. When you see a whole dialogue within an extremely symmetrical scene? That’s Wes. When you track an impressive line of characters moving horizontally across the screen? Yep, that, too, is Wes.

I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I fell for Moonrise Kingdom. And now I’m pleased to watch the director’s latest project, Isle of Dogs.

In the near-future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has seen an outbreak of dog flu, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs be banned and sent to Trash Island. He faces public opposition from Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who seeks a cure for the virus, as well as opposition at home from his nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), who will do anything to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Meanwhile, on the island itself, a pack of four dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) come across Atari after he crashes his plane into the island, as well as a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the clock ticks down to the Mayor’s final plot to eliminate all dogs from the area, Chief leads his newfound pack to help the boy find Spots and get word back to the mainland about their plight.

As dramatic as the above synopsis sounds, the story’s pretty simple. A pack of dogs and one determined 12-year-old take on the Mayor’s oppressive regime. Even so, for something that seems goofy, the spirit is definitely heartwarming. Anyone who’s even been a dog owner will get half the jokes. There’s also a nice recurring motif and exploration of the line, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Isle of Dogs spends as much time making fun of the way we treat dogs as it does exploring how dogs and people view each other. Loyalty’s a huge theme here, and it shows on both sides of the conflict.

The casting for this film is excellent. I mean, you’ll get exhausted just trying to keep track of who’s who in this movie. So I’ll just keep it simple and say that Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum are ideal for the dogs they voice. Greta Gerwig blends in well with her sharp, uber-serious diction as Tracy Walker, the lone English-speaking student in a Megasaki City high school. Also, the Japanese voice acting blends in well with the English voice cast. Much credit is due to Kunichi Nomura, who helped Anderson develop the story and how brings both pathos and power to the role of the cruel Mayor.

The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, with so much detail poured into the way dog fur moves and the subtle changes of human expression on characters like Atari and Tracy Walker. I’ll admit that, at this time, I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, so I can’t say how it compares, but I imagine it’s on par.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I, in fact, am not of Japanese descent. Therefore, I can’t really claim to be a credible witness about cultural appropriation with this movie. This is, after all, a film written and directed by Wes Anderson. But even so, given his collaboration with Mr. Nomura and the amount of work that went into representing all the details of modern Japanese life in stop-motion, there is a certain syncretic spirit within the plot. English-speaking characters like Tracy aren’t made superior to native Japanese like Atari, and even her place in Japan as an exchange student gets commented on at various points. The dogs also speak in an English vernacular, but they highlight that life as a housepet in Japan wouldn’t be all that different from the life of a pet in America or Europe.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not giving cultural appropriation its due. I can only say this much: go see the movie. Whether you love Wes Anderson or you just love seeing dogs in action, consider going to see Isle of Dogs. For all its quirks and commentary, at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty heartwarming story for all ages. It’s an offbeat, funny, farcical romp with a dramatic core that never lets up.

Isle of Dogs is available through Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson. Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Perf. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, and Frank Wood. Indian Paintbrush; American Empirical Pictures. Fox Searchlight Pictures. US release date: March 23, 2018.

First Look: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 3

Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation

While everyone’s getting hyped for Netflix Originals like The Defenders, I’m a little more interested in what kind of animation we can see (paired with good storytelling, of course). For that, if it’s not some new anime or another season of Bojack Horseman, then it’s getting a look at the newest season of Voltron: Legendary Defender.

As a caveat, some slight spoilers will follow in this review.

With Zarkon out of comission, his son and heir Prince Lotor takes over the Galra Empire, consolidating power with deadly aim. He and his team of elite soldiers move on the worlds liberated by the Paladins, reclaiming them and setting traps aplenty. Meanwhile, the Paladins seek a new leader in Shiro’s absence, putting Keith in command and letting Allura fill in where needed. But as the battle against Lotor’s rise goes on, new twists and turns are added to the mix, hinting at something far larger about the nature of the universe and about the power behind Voltron itself.

One way that I would describe this new season is the emphasis on politics. I don’t mean politics in the way you might see it on a show like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, where everyone’s making deals or betraying each other for power. On Voltron, the politics of the war against the Galra is pretty black-and-white. But there’s intrigue and debate within the ranks on both sides. We see how Lotor and his grand vision for the empire pits him against the druid Haggar and the senior figures in the military. Meanwhile, with Shiro missing in action, Keith has to take over, putting him at odds with Lance as de facto second-in-command and with Allura, who is trying to do more as a fighter than as a diplomat.

Within 7 episodes, at least, we get to see a glimpse of what’s to come and a little more insight into the major players. Midway through, we get a glimpse of alternate realities and histories, and how Allura’s people, the Alteans, might have fared under different circumstances. And the finale goes for a big climax not in the present, but in the past, as Coran reveals what happened with King Alfor, his former friend Zarkon, and the source of the ancient feud with the Galra.

Shiro’s fate, meanwhile, gets revealed in a heartwrenching way this season. We see more of the struggle he faces to escape the Galra, not only physically, but in overcoming his emotional scars, too. As a slight detour, there was a section where we see him braving the wilderness of a remote planet, trying to sort out what’s happened and how to find his team. It’s a sequence that reminds me a lot of my one favorite episodes of the Justice League animated series from 2003, “Hereafter,” where we watch Superman, presumed dead and powerless, survive in the wild of the distant future as a mere mortal with the skills he already has. It’s become something of a favorite subgenre of mine: the De-Powered and Friendless Hero Braving the Wild Story (on that note, I’d also recommend “Ludo in the Wild” from Season 2 of Star Vs. The Forces of Evil).

If I have only one complaint about this season, it’s that instead of 12 or 13 episodes, we only get a 7-episode run. Granted, the finale ends on a spectacular cliffhanger, and maybe there was some behind-the-scenes issue that led to this production schedule, it feels like a bit of a rush if we still have to wait for the wrap-up to this new story arc. I’d have preferred to wait a little longer if it meant getting a longer and more action-packed season to enjoy. As it is, Voltron is still Voltron, and this show has an energy that’ll always leave me coming back for more.

The third season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 3). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil: Magical Girls and My Family’s Culture

Copyright © 2015 by Disney-ABC Domestic Teleivision

Let’s be honest: it’s a good era for animation. We’ve got Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and so much more, made for both kids and adults. And I’m quite honestly bummed that one of my absolute favorites, Gravity Falls, is no longer with us. But as luck would have it, I’ve discovered the next best thing.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is a series on Disney X.D. about two kids fighting monsters and magic across multiple dimensions. Star Butterfly is the Princess of Mewni, whose royal parents send her to Earth for a good education. Which brings Star into contact with high school student Marco Diaz and his family. It also means that Star is now a target for villains like Ludo, who desire the powers of her magic wand and revenge against the ruling class of Mewni. Of course, being a wacky show, sometimes the threat is Star herself when she loses control of her powers, which is why it’s handy to have someone like Marco around.

So, I’m not gonna lie. I got huge flashbacks to Gravity Falls when I started watching this show (which was after Gravity Falls‘s series finale). Not that this is a bad thing by any means. There’s the same madcap quality, the same earnest relationships between characters, the same spirit of adventure, and the same super-catchy theme song by Brad Breeck. I mean, even the main characters Marco and Star are essentially Dipper and Mabel Pines, mirroring their personalities almost perfectly. But again, the quality of this show stands on its own. It’s not trying to be Gravity Falls, but works as its own colorful, fantasy-driven series.

I also loved, loved, loved the infusion of Latino culture into this show. Our protagonist is Marco Diaz, with visible and fleshed-out Latino parents. There are various bits of Spanish dropped throughout the show, along with touches of Mexican culture (piñatas, mariachi, etc.). But it’s not a cartoon made solely for Mexican-Americans. It’s a show that can appeal to everyone and still have enough room for playing with specific real-world cultures. Honestly, I’m jealous that this kind of animation wasn’t around when I was a kid.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but often times, it’s hard for me to talk about the animation quality of a show given how much talent and time goes into it these days. When you have a well-known animator like Giancarlo Volpe as a guest director, it’s hard to judge when the show does or doesn’t look so good as it could. But I will say (and it’s a small detail) that some of my favorite recurring bits is the animation on when characters’ eyes go big and glassy, with Star being the most common character for that.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is a delight and surprisingly deep, too. Much like Gravity Falls, it has a solid dynamic between two characters that plays well each episode, but it also has tons of untapped backstories and lore within the land of Mewni and the Butterfly family that can be used to tell all sorts of clever stories. I can’t wait to see its third season, and I hope you readers will enjoy it, too, if you’re not already watching.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is available through Disney X.D.

Bibliography: Star Vs. The Forces of Evil. Created by Deron Nefcy. Developed by Jordana Arkin and Dave Wasson. Directed by Dominic Bisignano. Perf. Eden Sher, Adam McArthur, and Alan Tudyk. Produced by Deron Nefcy, Dave Wasson, Jordana Arkin, Aaron Hammersley, and Dominic Bisignano. Disney Television Animation. Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Disney X.D. (network). Original broadcast run: January 18, 2015 – present.

First Look: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 2

Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation
Copyright © 2017 by DreamWorks Animation

The world can be a wonderful, wild, and scary place to live. Fortunately, a show like Voltron knows that. You can’t help but admire the energy and action that the show’s creators poured into every frame, from the vicious Galra to the desperate deeds of Princess Allura and her Paladins. Much like the theme of self-sacrifice that permeated Rogue One, the second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender promises to push events forward as the universe grows darker.

After their last battle with Zarkon and the forces of the Galra Empire, the Paladins are split up when their escape wormhole launches their Lions into different galaxies. While they fight to reunite, recover, and prepare for another assault, new developments occur. Keith and Shiro learn about the Blade of Marmora and its fight against Zarkon, and the team scatters again to collect all the pieces they need to arrange a final showdown with the Galra leader.

The opening of this season was a good chance for the audience to reconnect with each of the characters as they deal with being split up. We get to see how Pidge deals with her isolation, how Keith and Shiro work together, how Lance and Hunk manage with a mermaid civilization, and how Coran and Allura work their way out of a recurring time loop. But then, once we’ve figured these elements out, the show goes in new directions. We learn about Galra resistance fighters. We learn something unexpected about Keith’s past. We get more insight into Zarkon and what history he had with the Alteans, as teased at the end of Season 1. Everything we’ve come to expect from the show before gets twisted in new but consistent directions this season.

Of course, it took me until the halfway point of the show to realize that, when you get down to it, there’s very little difference between the first and second seasons. They’re basically the same plot: Gather the Heroes, Lose Vital Crystals for the Castle Ship, Gather New Crystals, Confront Team Secrets, and Prep for the Final Battle with Zarkon.

Still, it’s not a bad way to tell the story. Remember that this is the same team who brought us The Legend of Korra, and that was a show where Avatar Korra was always fighting a spiritual crisis and taking on an enemy who would usually threaten Republic City in the season finale. Just like their previous work, Joaquim Dos Santos and his team can still meet the same basic plot points and keep things fresh with new character arcs.

One recurring gag that I did notice more was the writers’ love of creating all those nonsensical words for the Altean vocabulary. Honestly, half of Coran’s dialogue is just him shouting random terms and analogies that (to his culture) make perfect sense, but leave the Earth-born heroes and audience totally lost. I still like the idea because it shows how alien the Alteans truly are, but there were times when I’m just sitting there going, “Really? Why does that need its own bizarre word?”

And as you can probably tell from my choice of an image, Pidge is still my absolute favorite character in the entire show. This season only made me enjoy her storyline more. Every technical issue made her shine (she even name-drops Alan Turing in Episode 4), and much like Keith, she had her own past demons to figure out in this current run of the series. Of course, no gets a more dramatic turn than either Keith or Shiro this season, but Pidge had a nice arc to balance them out.

Once again, Voltron makes a good comeback thanks to Netflix. The animation is still great, the writing is impressive, and the producers never miss a chance to add a little humor to an otherwise epic space opera tale.

The second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 2). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.

Voltron: Legendary Defender: Classic Heroes in a New Age

Copyright © 2016 by DreamWorks Animation
Copyright © 2016 by DreamWorks Animation

When I reviewed shows like The Big O, I admitted that I never caught onto the whole genre of giant mecha fighting each other like most guys my age did. I know I watched Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers as a kid, but it had no staying power for me, and I never hit that same stride again.

But lo! the heavens parted, and someone did make a giant robot show that I could get behind. All it took was Netflix and the animation team behind The Legend of Korra to give me a thrill-packed adventure with a strong dramatic core and an excellent cast.

It gave me Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Inspired by the original 1980s show, Voltron is set in the distant future, as human beings explore the cosmos. We meet 4 maverick cadets at the Galactic Garrison, who band together to break out the survivor of a failed first contact mission, Shiro. Their gathering unleashes an ancient and powerful lion-shaped robot from underneath the planet’s surface, and soon our heroes are transported to the distant world of Altea, where they learn about the Galra Empire, led by Zarkon, who has ruled the universe for 10,000 years. Under the eye of Princess Allura, these five “Paladins” scatter across the cosmos to reunite the five Lion machines and reform Voltron, the strongest fighter ever created.

Given that talented directors and artists like Joaquim Dos Santos are attached to this series, it’s no surprise that the animation in the new Voltron show is breathtaking and subtle. We get distinct and colorful patterns for every alien civilization, from the noble Alteans to the ruthless Galra. And as for someone who doesn’t really like giant mecha shows, I must admit that the detail and coloring on the recurring Voltron transformation sequence is spot on and exciting to watch every time.

Beyond how the show looks, Voltron also has subtle details and styles when it comes to fleshing out the alien civilizations encountered in the show. There’s plenty of comedy to be had from arguing over different measurements of time (seconds vs. “ticks” on Altea), but there’s also enough beauty in its more dramatic moments, such as the Balmera rituals that Coran and Allura perform to harvest crystals near the midway point of the season. You get the sense of how vast and interconnected the universe is, and we’ve only seen a fraction of what lies ahead.

The main cast is equally well-rounded. You get equal parts comedy relief and acts of bravery from characters like Lance, Keith, Hunk, and Coran. Meanwhile, Shiro and Allura manage to go beyond their generic leadership roles, bringing in moments of self-doubt and their respective scarred pasts to bear, often when the battle’s reached its peak. I also have to point out that my favorite among the Paladins is Pidge, who redefines being the “smart one” of the team with a major secret and a deep connection to the human team that first encountered the Galra.

With 11 episodes under their belt, the showrunners did a fantastic job of telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end. You can see how they used cause-and-effect to map out their episodic plots. In one episode, they take back their castle and need a rare crystal from a distant planet. In the next episode, the Paladins will be fighting to free that planet from the Galra. In the episode after that, they’ll hunker down and defend the planet from a Galra-bred war machine. Apologies for any spoilers you might have just read, but even so, I hope you can see how the first season of the show manages to follow through and tell a compelling, overarching story arc with multiple smaller stories scattered throughout.

Overall, I really, really liked this show. It’s fun like the shows I used to watch as a kid, but it has plenty of heart and intelligence fueling the universe where it takes place, which makes Season 2 of Voltron: Legendary Defender worth the wait.

Voltron: Legendary Defender is available to watch on Netflix.

Bibliography: Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 1). Based on Beast King GoLion by Toei Animation and Voltron: Defender of the Universe by World Events Productions. Produced by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Yoo Jae Myung, Ted Koplar, Bob Koplar, Choi Goun, Kim Young Hyun, Kim Seul Ki, and Lee Soo Kyung. DreamWorks Animation; World Events Productions; Studio Mir. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: June 10, 2016 – present.