Isle of Dogs: Wes Anderson Does It Again

(From L-R): Bill Murray as “Boss,” Jeff Goldblum as “Duke,” Edward Norton as “Rex,” Bob Balaban as “King,” Liev Shreiber as “Spots,” Harvey Keitel as “Gondo,” Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi” and Bryan Cranston as "Chief” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

With a film that pays homage to Japanese cinema, Wes Anderson has done it again with the crowd-pleasing stop-motion animated feature, Isle of Dogs.

Isle of Dogs is as much the story of Chief (Bryan Cranston) and Spots (Liev Schreiber) as it is 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin). Although it left him in a three-year coma, Atari had survived an accident while his parents perished.  He was left as a ward to his uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura).  Unbeknownst to him was just how corrupt and dog-hating that his uncle is.  Even though his uncle gave him Spots as a bodyguard, he soon decrees that all the dogs of Megasaki City be sent to Trash Island to live in exile.

In search of Spots, Atari sets flight on Junior-Turbo Prop.  The doomed flight leads to a not-so-great landing where five dogs come to his aid.  Chief, a stray dog who soon learns a lot about what it’s like to be loved by someone, is joined by Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).  While this leads Atari on his own journey to find his body guard and best friend, Chief gets a journey of his own by growing as a character.

Many of the dogs on the island are suffering from a canine flu that renders them helpless.  Even though there’s a cure at work, Mayor Kobayashi wants to shut the research down.  Kobayashi has an awful agenda at play and that should not come as a surprise given that the Kobayashi dynasty isn’t a fan of man’s best friend.  The mayor is capable of taking things as far as needed although his right-wing man, Major Domo (Akira Takayama), is willing to go even further.

There’s a brief disclaimer offered early on about the translations of what characters are saying into English, including the dog barks.  It’s so hysterically funny but it’s a nice touch to the film before viewers are taken on a wild and epic ride in just over an hour and a half.  Oscar winner Frances McDormand is great as Interpreter Nelson.  She becomes too invested in the events that transpire on screen–a nice but pleasant touch!

There are moments in this sweet and beautiful film that will remind film goers of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.  The script is so well-written that there’s a few teasers at play.  It takes viewers in one direction before zinging into another.  There’s the dog activist, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is a foreign exchange student and under the belief that a conspiracy theory is at play.  Walker plays such an important role in the film because of this.

The animation is truly remarkable.  It’s not a film that could be released in live-action without a lot of photo-realistic CGI a la The Jungle Book because the the dogs talk in the movie.  It’s a film that could only be told by way of an animated story.  Telling a story that’s grounded through important messages, Isle of Dogs manages to build its own world.  Despite all of this is the fact that the film is set in Japan with a cast that is very heavy on Caucasian actors.  Whether this was the intent of Anderson, I don’t know but there’s a needed discussion that has to be said in regard to this decision.  Many of the Japanese actors get dubbed over by way of McDormand’s aforementioned Interpreter Nelson and this isn’t right.  If you’re going to set the film in an Asian country, you may as well just have an all-Asian cast or do better than the disclaimer about the English.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is one that is heavy on drums at occasions.  The score helps to play up the stakes in the film to it’s advantage.  This is never more so during the tense moments as the dogs make their way to Megasaki City in a fight-for-life battle to save the day.

Isle of Dogs has its quirks but at the end of the day, it hits all the right notes.  It’s going to be hard-pressed to find an animated  feature in 2018 that doesn’t have as much heart and emotion.

CAST:  Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Following the world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, Fox Searchlight will open Isle of Dogs in limited release on March 23, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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