Isle of Dogs is the latest film from quirky director, Wes Anderson. It’s his second stop-motion animated film following Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and is set in a dystopian, near-future Japan, where a dog flu virus has spread throughout the canine population.
The power hungry mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi, signs a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The nephew of the mayor, Atari, arrives on the island, looking for his dog, “Spots”. The film is essentially a travel film, as the dogs try to get back to Japan and keep Atari safe. Featuring great voice-actors (mostly Wes Anderson’s regulars) and creative animation, Isle of Dogs may not hit the highs of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s still quite good with a lot of surprisingly strong performances. Plus, it’s really funny.
A lot of the humor comes from the dogs’ interactions and different behaviors. For example, when the dogs are given food by the government, Edward Norton as “Rex” exclaims, “Before we tear each other apart like a pack of maniacs, let’s just open the sack and see what’s in it”. A lot of the dialogue features clever wordplay and silliness which is an Anderson trademark.
Stop-motion has always been one of my favorite forms of animation and the film certainly creates some memorable visuals. In particular, there are news reports presented in a traditional animation form, yet given a distinct look with a grey background color of the island. Another noteworthy scene is when the dogs are talking to Atari, as the boy appears to look like a giant in comparison to the dogs. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I was seeing things, but it was cool.
Anderson’s regular troop of actors provide the voices for the dogs, along with some new actors, like Bryan Cranston, a particular stand-out, as “Chief”, the main “loner dog” who eventually develops a nice bond with Atari, and Scarlett Johansson as “Nutmeg”. Bill Murray, being Bill Murray as “Boss”, Jeff Goldblum as “Duke”, and Liev Schreiber as “Spots” round out a packed cast. I would have liked to have seen more of Duke, voiced by Goldblum, who wasn’t, in my opinion, used enough. Even so, the actors played a huge part in my enjoyment of the film.
Both the use of Japanese songs and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat, which makes heavy use of taiko drums, flutes, and bassoons with no string instruments in sight, makes the film memorable. It pulls you right into the opening scene with tambourines and it never stops working from there. Like Anderson’s other films, it’s very quirky.
There’s a political theme running throughout most of the film. Mayor Kobayaski is a corrupt individual who constantly cheats his way through reelection. There are other examples of political abuse of power. Much to my surprise, it mostly works and fits into the overall plot of the film with the dogs, who represent the oppressed.
Unfortunately, Isle of Dogs is not perfect, and does suffer from a bit of a narrative flow problem. In particular, the subplot involving an American exchange student, voiced by Greta Gerwig, could have been eliminated entirely. The female dog, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, also doesn’t seem to do much, and there are a few slow moments. Overall, I found Isle of Dogs to be an enjoyable time, but, don’t go into it expecting a happy family film just because it’s animated. While it’s a relatively tame, PG-13 film, it is very much a movie for adults (the art-house crowd) and recommended.
Now playing in Hanover at the Nugget Theater, Monday - Thursday at 4:20 and 7:00 PM, Friday at 3:50, 6:45, and 8:45 PM, Saturday at 12:50, 3:50, 6:45, and 8:45 PM, and Sunday at 12:50, 3:50, and 6:45 PM.