- Movie Rating -

Isle of Dogs (2018)

| April 14, 2018

Wes Anderson takes to whimsy like a duck to water.  It must be in his bones, he knows how to conceptualize it in a way that is droll and wry but never forced.  After 20 years one might think that his bag of whimsical drollery might be wearing out its welcome, but not so fast.  His latest work, that animated adventure Isle of Dogs – say that title to yourself slowly – is a work of brilliant visual eccentricities, a strange and fascinating three-dimensional confection for adults that turns out to be one of the best films of the year.

Critical reaction has been mixed, but my personal affections for this movie may be deeply personal both as a dog lover and as a fan of animation both in and away from the mainstream.  Isle of Dogs is an animated fantasy for adults, far from the appropriative confections of Disney (which I love) or its competition from the likes of Dreamworks and Illumation.  This is a movie off the beaten path as it were, no conventional computer animation, but a stop-motion comedy inspired greatly by the films of Akira Kurasawa, the Anime genre and the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials from the ‘60s.  The result is a treat for the eyes, a world that is essentially drab and colorless but never-the-less visually intriguing.  It’s here but so too is a mind-boggling amount of work with stop-motion, hand-drawn animation and model work.

Told in chapters and narrated by Courtney B. Vance, Isle of Dogs takes place in the future Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City where the canine population has exploded and is threatening the public health via something called Snout Fever.  In response, the iron-jawed Mayor Kobayashi (routinely seen stroking his cat) issues an order that all dogs are to be banned to the god-forsaken Trash Island where the pure-breds like Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eek out a basic survival among the strays like Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and previously pampered household pets like Duke (v. Jeff Goldblum), Boss (v. Bill Murray), King (v. Bob Balaban) and Rex (v. Edward Norton).  Whatever drops into their midst become a battle for territory and when a fight breaks out it becomes a comical cloud of paws and ears and tails like something about of a Bug Bunny cartoon.  All of the dogs come from different backgrounds, each has a story to tell but all live in the equal woe of unwavering misery.

But then the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew Atari (v. Koyu Rankin) drops into their midst.  He has come to the island via his own plane to find his long-lost dogs Spots (v. Leiv Schrieber), the pack see a ray of hope – a hope of being rescued from this terrible island.  And the rest of the movie follows the journey to recover Spots and return the world to its rightful order again.  The beauty of this film is that it takes twists and turns and reveals things along the way.  Things have a way of becoming more than meets the eyes.  A long-forgotten dog skeleton at the beginning has a storied history that wraps around and become integral to the plot later.  This is a smart movie.

Smart too are the choice of characters.  They are voiced by actors that we know (and largely Wes Anderson regulars) like Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray.  What is special here is the way in which the characters are written and designed to fit the actor playing them.  There’s been a special attention to make each character look like the actor, but there’s some bit of restraint so they don’t come off like caricatures.  But the actor’s personality fits the character as written.  That gives them a deeper resonance and alleviates a lot of tiresome introductions on our part.  We know Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson from other movies so we have the advantage of meeting their characters halfway as the story opens.

Some of Anderson’s storytelling choices are, I will admit, an acquired taste.  For one thing, the movie only allows the dogs to speak English – an early note tells us that the humans will be heard in their native language but the dog’s barks will be dubbed into English.  That takes some getting use to so that when we move back to the scenes in Japan much of the dialogue is translated by a news reporter called Interpreter Nelson (v. Frances McDormand).

The interpretations have pushed away many who have already seen Isle of Dogs and so too does the film’s narrative structure.  The film routinely breaks away from the story of Atari’s search for Spots to come back to the mainland for a series of subplots and flashbacks which many have deemed unnecessary.  For example, there is a side-story about a dog activist named Tracy (v. Greta Gerwig) who is working to free the dogs which many feel is troublesome and unnecessary, but I found that it added another layer, a push-back against the mayor’s internal hatred of canines.

I could go on and on about this movie.  It’s such a delight, and such a relief for a fan of animation like me.  I’m always looking for films that challenge either in the writing or in the visual language.  Isle of Dogs does both.  And I am a champion of animation that expands away from the standard family market.  I would like to see more adult-themed animated movies like this, it’s a rare treat –  a biscuit, and I’ll gladly take another.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Animated, Comedy