REVIEW: “Isle of Dogs”

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So a while ago I put together a list celebrating the animated dogs of cinema in anticipation for a new stop-motion picture called “Isle of Dogs”. Unfortunately the distribution plan of the film changed and my local theater didn’t get the copy they said they’d have for that week. Well now they have it and I was finally able to see this beautiful film for myself. After all that waiting, did it live up to my expectations? You can read on to find out and if you’d like to check out my list of the Top 10 Animated Movie Dogs you can click here. Otherwise, FINALLY, here is my review of “Isle of Dogs”.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT

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“Isle of Dogs” is the latest project from notable director, writer and producer Wes Anderson and is set in a dystopian Japan where a dog-flu epidemic has stuck man’s best friend. Having a family history against canines, the mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), decrees that all dogs be relocated to nearby Trash Island for quarantine with the first dog sent being Spots (Liev Schreiber), the canine companion of the Mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Six months later Atari runs away to Trash Island where dogs have split into packs scavenging for food and trying to survive. The pack we follow is made up of stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston), devoted house pet Rex (Edward Norton), former sports mascot dog Boss (Bill Murray), gossiper Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and acting dog King (Bob Balaban). The pack finds Atari on the island and sets off to help him find Spots while Atari’s uncle works to fix the upcoming election in his favor and sabotage any remaining love for dogs in Megasaki City. The adventure turns into a race against time to not only reunite Atari and Spots, but also stop a larger plot and conspiracy to put an end to canine kind and hide and antidote for the disease that justified the quarantine in the first place.

 

THE ACTING

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The ensemble cast includes a lot of big names in “Isle of Dogs” and none of them feel wasted. The main pack teams together some massive names like Bryan Cranston, Billy Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum and rather than comment on their individual performances I’m going to compliment them as a group. Everyone works extremely well off of each other to deliver their lines and the deadpan humor that litters the project is perfectly projected. This is a cast of great talents who own each of their character’s individual personalities. Other smaller parts are filled in by equally talented actors like Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Greta Gerwig who also bring their A-games and make every one of their characters charming, fun and memorable. This is a great cast who dedicated themselves fully to the project and it shows. You can truly believe these banters are happening in real time between real characters. The voice overs are fluid and blend together nicely to make for real conversation. Like Anderson’s other stop-motion project, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “Isle of Dogs” depends heavily on the performances and visuals and like the prior project the voice overs are flawless and set the tone of the movie from the get-go.

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“Isle of Dogs” is also a showcase for some Japanese actors and actresses seeing as most of the main human characters speak the native tongue of the film’s setting. Yoko Ono, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama and Ken Watanabe are just a few of the Japanese talents who lend their voices to the humans in the film and the great thing about all of them is that despite the language barrier, both literally in connecting to the audience and in-film connecting to the dogs, their inflections and vocal presentations make it easy to understand them even if only in concept. Just like the American and English speaking actors involved the Japanese actors provide great voice overs that fit the deadpan comedy and delivery of the project and even tap into some of the nuances of the Japanese language which helps make “Isle of Dogs” more than just a fun adventure. It’s also a pretty cool look into Japanese culture and dialect with respect to the audience that it was targeting seeing as it was built for both western and eastern viewers. So whether it’s the English speaking actors or the ethnic actors the voice overs are flawless and are aided by a well-established story and setting and an amazing script.

 

WHAT WORKED

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In addition to the fact that “Isle of Dogs” showcases some amazing cultural diversity in its cast and characters, the film works on so many more levels offering an entertaining and unique story from start to finish. “Isle of Dogs” is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, with truly original character designs, culturally accurate set pieces, and a story that doesn’t lean too heavily on clichés. Even at its most predictable moments “Isle of Dogs” stands out as something relatively new. Wes Anderson is a mastermind behind the camera and behind the pen, that’s undeniable. But even for him “Isle of Dogs” feels like something completely original. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also offers some great social messages making it fun for those young and old and it sticks to its identity, fully embracing the unique sense of humor in the script and keeping a constant and consistent tone layered with comedy, commentary and emotional depth.

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Among the most respectable aspects of the film are the political and social undertones of the narrative which are often overshadowed by the mans-best-friend storyline about a boy and his dog. Even with the more heartfelt story taking center stage the social commentary shines through as “Isle of Dogs” targets issues of science versus fear, election fixing, and even racial segregation with the dogs stepping in to represent any minority targeted for elimination on the basis of a lie or prejudice. None of these messages are forced or out of place and they don’t overshadow the fun and sarcastic wit of the more lighthearted story that is the main focus of the film. This makes “Isle of Dogs’ a prime example of how to handle social commentary in an animated offering. It’s not pretentious or preachy, it just make points that are relevant to the narrative and happen to be significant in the real world. This is the kind of delicate touch Anderson is known for and once again we get a great display of his ability to make an important film without sacrificing story or lighthearted fun in the process.

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Of course topping all this off is the boy and his dog tale, a trope we’ve seen many times over but “Isle of Dogs” gives it a fresh spin especially considering the communication gap between the animals and the humans. In a way it makes the humans more of the pets than the dogs and slowly builds to the significance of the bond between the two rather than hitting us over the head with it. Even when we know what’s coming it’s hard not to appreciate the sincerity in this bond and the relationship we see form between an out of place boy looking for his pup and one of the members of the main pack who shuns any involvement with humans whatsoever. What’s better is that the movie acknowledges the corny and somewhat cliché nature of this story through effective dry comedy giving “Isle of Dogs” a subtle self-referential feel. Overall it’s a very well done film that takes it self seriously enough while also being lighthearted and mixes several different overlapping stories perfectly to give us a complete, well thought out and well written animated feature that’s smart enough and mature enough for adults, but not so adult friendly that kids can’t appreciate what it has to say on the surface.

 

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

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There were very few flaws I found in “Isle of Dogs” but every movie has at least one flaw and for this film it’s a single subplot that felt extremely unneeded. Part of the prejudice story involves the replacement of dogs with robotic canine companions, but this takes the film into odd territory that didn’t need to be explored and in some ways even betrays the character element of the mayor where he despises dogs. It’s clear that the mayor is a cat lover. We see them with him most of the film. So unless it’s to turn a profit, an element barely explored in a film that otherwise balanced social commentary so well, why would he invest in these robotic canines? They do add some fun moments to the scenes on Trash Island as they are used in assisting in the capturing of the dogs, but “Isle of Dogs” has so much more to offer that having these contrived mechanical monsters incorporated into the narrative just feels out of place. It’s the kind of story decision we would expect from someone with half of Anderson’s talent and to me it kind of took me out of the story a bit. It felt like a cheap way to add more context to the mayors canine hatred which wasn’t really needed. There’s so much to work off of already to understand the prejudice and even in the finale the robots didn’t feel required. Humans were doing just fine being the bad guys all on their own. Also it’s a significant plot hole that the robots were introduced to replace dogs when the mayor was trying to rid people of their love of the canines. It seems counterproductive to create a smear campaign using an artificial version of something you want eliminated from society altogether. In an otherwise flawless film this one element is a blemish that I just couldn’t overlook and honestly was probably the most cliché and generic creative decision of the entire movie.

 

 

CONCLUSION

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“Isle of Dogs” is everything I hoped it would be and more. It perfectly balances dry humor with heartfelt emotional depth and social commentary and sports a fantastic and dedicated cast who all bring their characters to life flawlessly. There’s just so much to love from the interwoven stories to the character development, racial diversity and creative set pieces and models used to bring it all to life. Wes Anderson did make a questionable decision by incorporating robot dogs into the fray but that’s a flaw that’s easy to overlook. The rest of the movie is just so damn smooth, stylish and well thought out that you can’t help but appreciate all the work that went into making it happen. This is an animated movie that is true cinematic art. Once again Wes Anderson proves to be one of the best at seeing a project through. Whether you’re looking for a simple tale about the bonds of dogs and man or a more significant film that challenges prejudice and societal judgement “Isle of Dogs” offers a little bit of everything for everyone and given the chance will make you laugh, cheer and even shed a tear. I had high expectations for this film and it’s not every day that a movie meets those expectations and then some.

 

 

GRADE: 5 Stars

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