‘Isle of Dogs’ Review
It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Rushmore all share a tone and style…a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).
Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Anderson also pays homage to Japanese filmmaking in his latest film, Isle of Dogs…especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot,” that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.
Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite.” We know this because director Anderson explains, “Barks are rendered in English.”
While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee…spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure that the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fine tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.
In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B. Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.
It’s a dystopian tale…well it is if you happen to be a dog… Cat lovers probably view this as paradise! An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those who took offense at the film’s portrayal of Japanese people. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.