Movie Review: “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson is a filmmaker truly adept at crafting an image.  Every frame feels carefully composed, every camera angle considered. Watching a Wes Anderson film one gets the sense that they are truly witnessing his vision on screen and a story that is being told in the exact manner he wanted to tell it.  Whether the movie is live-action or animated, Anderson is one of those auteurs whose work can be spotted a mile away.

This is not to say, however, that everyone need like that which Anderson puts on screen.  There are a number of his films which, as much as I admirethem, I constantly find myself at an emotional distance.  This is not the case though with his latest, a stop-motion feature entitled “Isle of Dogs.”

As is regularly the case, Anderson has once more put together an outstanding cast. This one featuring Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Koyu Rankin, Jeff Goldblum, and just so many others. Nearly every time a character opens their mouth to speak, out pops a recognizable voice.

The story itself takes place in the near future and follows one boy, Atari (Rankin), who goes on a quest to find his dog, which has been quarantined along with all the other dogs in his city, Megasaki, on an island of trash.  The reasons for this are complicated, told over the course of the film, and have an exceptionally long history, but the important bit for the purposes of this review is that it happens.

I could quickly become bogged down here in story specifics and spend paragraph after paragraph talking about the relationship between the dogs and how that affects their relationship with Atari.  There is plenty of time that can be spent on the politics of Megasaki City and Trash Island. There are questions to be asked about the foreign exchange student, Tracy (Gerwig), and her relationship to Megasaki.  There are long ruminations to be had about love and history and how groups come together.

These are all valid avenues that a review, or a think piece, could take.  Rather than following any of them, what I would prefer to draw your attention to is the fact that these are indeed all valid avenues of study.  Wes Anderson has loaded the film with comments and cogitations on each and every one of these areas, as well as others. “Isle of Dogs,” as with the rest of the Wes Anderson oeuvre, is an exceptionally well thought out piece of filmmaking.

As an example of this, look at the film’s use of the spoken word.  Whenever someone speaks in English there is a reason for them to be doing so. Atari is only ever heard speaking Japanese, as is his Uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura).  To discern what the dogs are saying, their voices are rendered in English, not that they can understand Tracy or any of the characters who exist solely to translate Japanese into English.

Despite the film’s repeated use of Japanese, both spoken and written, all the necessary information is conveyed to an English speaking audience, there is never a fear of missing out on the story.  There is, however, a definite sense that if one could read Japanese they may very well discover an extra joke or two.

The stop-motion animation (Anderson’s second film to be shot this way) used is nothing short of gorgeous. While the movements are not realistic (they assuredly are not meant to be), there is still a life-like feel imparted to the characters’ motions.

The movement of the fur on the dogs is particularly great, as are some of the dog/human fights, which cause massive balls of dust to erupt around the characters.  Although we have seen scuffles depicted in such a manner before, there is something about it being reproduced here which makes it feel both like an homage and a unique occurrence.

Those who believe that Anderson’s tales are too cutesy (or “twee” if you prefer) will not be disabused of the notion here. “Isle of Dogs,” even when it deals with serious issues, does so with visuals that tend to lean in that direction.  Would I classify the movie as being “cute?”  Undoubtedly I would, but I wouldn’t say that it goes too far in that direction.  It may feature dogs, but they are not puppies and they are not placed there for people to squee at.

Where exactly this movie may stand in a ranking of Wes Anderson films is debatable, but assuredly anyone who has ever enjoyed Anderson’s work will find something to like here, as will fans of animation.  Beyond that, it is a good story told well, and one that will spark thoughtful discussion and questioning.

What more could one want?

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photo credit: Fox Searchlight Films

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