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"Isle of Dogs": Joyously Fun Canine Adventure

By Kelson Howerton
On April 25, 2018

"Isle of Dogs" is one of Wes Anderson's most ambitiously ridiculous movies yet.
Photo Courtesy of Hollywood Reporter

Few filmmakers have quite as a distinctive style as Wes Anderson. Known for bizarre storytelling, meticulously framed compositions and a pastel color palette, Anderson’s films are favorites among hipster film lovers, and if you have ever taken a film class, you have probably seen one of them. In his latest work, Anderson brings his creative vision to new heights with his most emotionally complex, deeply serious characters yet: dogs. Set in Japan 20 years in the future, “Isle of Dogs” is a joyously fun canine adventure that wears its influences on its sleeves.

The film’s premise is simple. Due to an outbreak of canine flu, Mayor Kobayashi of the futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki banishes the city’s dogs to Trash Island. Now once house-broken pooches are forced to survive in the rough conditions of a garbage dump, scrounging for what little rotten scraps they can find. While this sounds like a straightforward, albeit rash, reaction to a dog epidemic, Mayor Kobayashi, played by Kunichi Nomura who also co-wrote the film, has a more sinister plan for the dogs up his sleeve. This plan goes smoothly until Mayor Kobayashi’s 12-year-old ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a makeshift prop plane and crashes it on Trash Island in search of his dog Spots, the first pooch to be doomed to the Isle of Dogs.

Along Atari’s journey for his lost dog, Atari encounters Bryan Cranston’s stray Chief and his pack of not-so-ferocious alpha dogs Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray). Although reluctant at first, Chief and the pack agree to help Atari search for Spots, and thus begins an epic journey.

His second foray into stop-motion animation, “Isle of Dogs” is one of Anderson’s most visually gorgeous movies yet. Superb stop-motion animation, incredibly detailed production design and set dressing, and Anderson’s trademark style centered around symmetry, pastel colors, and a whole lot of quirk bring the world of “Isle of Dogs” to life, despite how ridiculous it is. All of this is complimented by Alexandre Desplat’s lively score populated with taiko drums and flutes. In both music and visuals, “Isle of Dogs” is an ode to the Japanese art and film (particularly filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki) that influenced Anderson’s work.

Furthermore, Anderson is known for his ability to create instantly lovable, albeit flawed, characters, and this shines through greatest in this latest flick. Despite his rough exterior, Crantson’s Chief is the heart-and-soul of “Isle of Dogs” as he grapples his resolute nature and hate for human “masters” with his growing bond with Atari. Cranston is complimented by the film’s cohort of dogs, including the main pack. Each of the alpha dogs are fun and quirky characters and feel fine-tuned to the performer, with Jeff Goldblum’s Duke in particular feeling eerily Goldblum-y.

In an interesting decision for the film, every dog bark in the film is translated into perfect English, while the majority of humans speak un-subtitled Japanese occasionally translated by the English-speaking characters. Because of this, “Isle of Dogs” is very much a film from the dogs’ perspective, providing an interesting look at the emotions and behaviors of man without the context of their words, unless you happen to speak the language yourself.

Despite the language barrier, Atari is one of the most relatable characters in the movie. “The little pilot,” as the dogs call him, is the first and only human to care enough about his dog to fight the injustice system and try to rescue Spots from the trashy prison. He’s a strong, determined, and good-natured character that stands out as one of Anderson’s best protagonists yet. Koyu Rankin, who was just eight years old when he was casted, delivers a commendable performance for his first full length film.

Rankin is not alone, as the film is also heightened by additional voicework from the likes of Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Frances McDormand and Yoko Ono, bringing the canine and human puppets of “Isle of Dogs” to life.

The only negative that can be found in this film is a side plot of the young and fiery foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), which if removed from the film entirely, the plot would largely be unaltered. While not having a major effect on the plot, the scenes featuring this rebellious dog-lover provide enough laughs and trademark Anderson charm to not detract from the film.

All of this comes together to make one of Anderson’s most ambitiously ridiculous movies yet. While often melancholic, a sense of childlike joy persists throughout Anderson’s work, a sense that is shown greatest in “Isle of Dogs,” which revels in the absurd across its hour and 40 minute runtime. “Isle of Dogs” is easily one of the most fun movies of the year and yet another reminder that no one makes movies quite like Wes Anderson.

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