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Where ‘Isle of Dogs’ Fits in Hollywood’s Tradition of Talking Canines

Wes Anderson seems to love loquacious animals. So much so that he has made not one, but two, stop-motion movies starring talking canines: first, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which featured the voice of George Clooney in the title role, followed by the endlessly eccentric “Isle of Dogs.” This delightful outing opens with a card that reads, “All barks have been rendered into English,” and sure enough, Anderson assembled many of his favorite actors — Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton — to do the honors.

That decision has since inspired many a think piece, in which critics questioned the politics of Anderson’s choices. It’s a valid debate, but I’d prefer to tackle another question: Namely, why do we accept talking dogs in the first place?

The earliest example I can find in Western civilization dates back to “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes, who penned a novella in 1613 titled “Dialogue of the Dogs,” which features a satirical conversation between two canines, Scipio and Berganza, in which they marvel for several pages at receiving “this divine gift of speech.”

At first, Berganza says, “I hear you speaking, and I know I’m speaking right back, and yet I just can’t believe it, it’s so unnatural,” before proceeding to poke fun at the humans they have known. It all goes to show that if dogs could talk, their banter would be far worse than their bite.

A few decades later, French author Charles Perrault published literature’s first “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Whereas wolves had not previously been known to talk, this one came to be known for having “a terrible big mouth.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, trained dogs had become a staple of stage and screen. In 1912, “Don the Talking Dog” made his American debut on the vaudeville circuit, barking basic words. Early silent “Rescued by Rover” paved the way for superstar Rin Tin Tin, although neither spoke.

In 1929, shortly after the arrival of sound, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer unveiled a series of live-action “Dogville Comedies,” which they dubbed “barkies” — a twist on “talkies” — in which trained dogs were manipulated to sing, dance and play the piano in ways that look both crude and potentially cruel by contemporary standards.

Meanwhile, in the medium of animation, Walt Disney delighted the world with a range of anthropomorphic animals — although it remains a mystery why Goofy talks and walks upright, while Pluto is stuck barking on all fours. Over the subsequent decades, the studio made chatty canines so common — from “101 Dalmatians” to its CG wonder dog, “Bolt” — that we hardly question the convention anymore.

So many cartoon pooches have since enjoyed “this divine gift of speech” that “Isle of Dogs” falls comfortably within a tradition where Droopy talks, but Snoopy doesn’t. Ultimately, and entirely consistent with what has come before, the point of Anderson’s stop-motion parable is that dogs and humans have a special kind of understanding, despite not speaking the same language.

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