Movies & TV / Reviews

Isle of Dogs Review

March 23, 2018 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Isle of Dogs (From L-R): Bryan Cranston as "Chief," Bob Balaban as “King,” Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi,” Bill Murray as “Boss,” Edward Norton as “Rex” and Jeff Goldblum as “Duke” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Isle of Dogs Review  

Directed By: Steven S. DeKnight
Written By: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura
Runtime: 101 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images

Bryan Cranston – Chief
Koyu Rankin – Atari
Kunichi Nomura – Mayor Kobayashi
Edward Norton – Rex
Bill Murray – Boss
Jeff Goldblum – Duke
Bob Balaban – King
Akira Takayama – Major-Domo
Akira Ito – Professor Watanabe
Liev Schreiber – Spots
Greta Gerwig – Tracy Walker
Scarlett Johansson – Nutmeg
Harvey Keitel – Gondo
F. Murray Abraham – Jupiter
Tilda Swinton – Oracle
Frances McDormand – Interpreter Nelson
Yoko Ono – Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono
Courtney B. Vance – The Narrator

Director Wes Anderson returns to the realm of stop-motion animation with Isle of Dogs, which is due to open in select cities this week, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. The film will expand to theaters nationwide on April 6. Anderson’s latest foray into animation is far superior than his 2009 film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it’s possibly one of his most charming and emotional films to date.

At its core, Anderson presents a heartwarming story about a boy and his dog, which also becomes a fun, imaginative morality play. For Isle of Dogs, Anderson mixes his offbeat, quirky style with multiple types of animation in addition to stop-motion. The setting of a fictionalized city of Megasaki, Japan offers some amazing, gorgeous production design.

The narrative stems from a centuries-old grudge between the wild dogs who lived in Japan and a noble family of cat owners, the Kobayashi Clan. Centuries later, the latest head of the Kobayashi clan, Mayor Kobayashi Nomura, opts to put the longstanding feud to rest. He and his political aide, Major-Domo (Takayama), and various unscrupulous minions devise a plan to banish all dogs to a giant landfill off the coast of Megasaki, Trash Island. The dogs are stricken with a contagious flu virus. Stoking the flames of paranoia in the general populace, Kobayashi manages to gain public support for the banishment of all dogs, along with making his political opponent, Professor Watanabe (Ito) of the Science Party, a pariah to the citizenry.

Meanwhile, on Trash Island, times grow desperate for the dogs, many of whom were domesticated and beloved by their owners. They start to lose hope as they fight for meager, rotten scraps. Among the dogs is a group of democratically equal canines: Rex (Norton); the stray, Chief (Cranston); Boss (Murray); Duke (Goldblum); and King (Balaban). One day, they notice a small plane that crashes on the island, piloted by a young boy Atari (Rankin). Atari happens to be Mayor Kobayashi’s distant nephew and ward, and the boy is in desperate search of his lost dog and bodyguard Spots (Schreiber), the first dog banished to Trash Island. Of course, the dogs, who are still loyal to their human masters, opt to help the boy find spots. Despite some initial reluctance, Chief is driven to join them in their search.

Unbeknownst to them, time is running out for the dogs of Japan, as Mayor Kobayashi’s group seeks to enact their plan to exterminate the remaining dogs. However, a group of young students, led by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Gerwig), who are dedicated to the belief of dogs as man’s best friend, attempt to expose the Kobayashi group’s lies and reveal the existence of a dog flu serum created by the unfortunate Professor Ito.

Isle of Dogs features a film that’s a lot more emotional and appealing than Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was hampered by an unlikable lead character. Anderson shares story credit here alongside Kunichi Nomura and longtime collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. After some early jockeying, Chief ultimately settles in as the main protagonist of the story. Unlike many of the other dogs who find themselves on Trash Island, he was already alone and previously abandoned by humans. He’s the dog who “bites.” Chief is the character who experiences the greatest change throughout the film, and his journey with Atari is poignant and moving.

The main mark against the film is that some of the characters simply disappear into the background in the second half. Rex, who initially comes off as the central protagonist, and his friends become marginalized after a particular sequence as the plot puts more focus on Chief and his relationships with Atari and Spots. As a result, actors such as Goldblum and Murray have little to do in their respective roles voicing Duke and Boss. Duke’s character is boiled to a one-note gag as a dog who shares lots of gossip. That’s amusing, but it’s not much of a character.

Anderson stages Isle of Dogs in a way that comes off as slightly theatrical. It might be the Japanese setting, but many shots and sequences appear staged similarly to a live performance. The camera views characters from a frontal position. Shots appear symmetrical. Anderson has very much infused his style throughout the film, with Courtney Vance playing the dry narrator role. Isle of Dogs brings out Anderson’s technique to its maximum effect. With the stop motion animation and models, it’s almost as if the characters and the world they live in are now allowed to look as bizarre and exaggerated as their actions.

From the outset, there’s almost a meta, wall-breaking context to the story. The Japanese characters all speak in Japanese without subtitles. Anderson sometimes gets around this through an onsite interpreter or a translator. Meanwhile, all the dogs are merely barking, but “the barks have been translated into English.” Anderson is completely committed to his vision for this story.

The film features a terrific score by Alexandre Desplat, who mixes in a lot of taiko drums and a traditional Japanese sound to anchor the music. There’s also an amusing tune that’s akin to a human master whistling to his dog that’s adapted as part of the main theme for the film, and it’s incredibly heartwarming.

Isle of Dogs is a perfect film for dog lovers, or maybe just animal lovers in general. It expresses the special bond and friendship between humans and their pets. Wes Anderson realizes these ideas with an amazing, unique flare. The best thing of all is that Anderson achieves his vision with a form of animation that the industry has rendered close to obsolete.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Isle of Dogs is quite possibly Wes Anderson's best film to date. It's a great story about a boy and his dog and the special bond that humans share with their pets. He pulls it off with his usual signature style that fits incredibly well here, backed up by a strong cast of thespians performing the voices, and tremendous music by Alexandre Desplat. isle of Dogs is definitely a film to see in the theaters.