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Isle of Dogs Movie Review

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster Isle of Dogs

Theatrical Release: March 23, 2018 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Wes Anderson / Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay & story); Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura (story)

Voice Cast: Bryan Cranston (Chief), Koyu Rankin (Atari Kobayashi), Edward Norton (Rex), Bob Balaban (King), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayashi), Akira Takayama (Major Domo), Greta Gerwig (Tracy Walker), Frances McDormand (Interpreter Nelson), Akira Ito (Professor Watanabe), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg), Harvey Keitel (Gondo), F. Murray Abraham (Jupiter), Yoko Ono (Assistant-Scientist Yoko-Ono), Tilda Swinton (Oracle), Ken Watanabe (Head Surgeon), Mari Natsuki (Auntie), Fisher Stevens (Scrap), Nijiro Murakami (Editor Hiroshi), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Courtney B. Vance (The Narrator)

 

Writer-director Wes Anderson launched his career with characters and storytelling. If not for starring Luke and Owen Wilson, Anderson's debut Bottle Rocket might not easily be identified as a Wes Anderson film. In time, Anderson's knack for telling witty, resonant stories became almost secondary
to the pastel flair applied to them. To me, Anderson's eighth film at the helm, 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a triumph of style over substance. But what do I know? That whimsical European tale became Anderson's highest-grossing work to date. It also earned him his first Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director.

The enthusiastic reception given to that film made me fear the Anderson whose work I fell in love with early into this millennium was being replaced by an Anderson whose work was showier yet hollow. Fortunately, Anderson's ninth film returns him to the mindset of one of his best. Nine years after giving us Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson gets back into stop motion animation with Isle of Dogs, the best film of this year so far and what is sure to end up as one of 2018's most original.

Sharing story credit with Tokyo radio DJ Kunichi Nomura and repeat collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, Anderson alone takes screenplay credit on this inventive and unusual lark. After a short prologue explains Japan's complicated history with dogs, we learn that the current administration of Megasaki City has banished all dogs to an island full of trash. Sick with snout fever and dog flu, the canines are hungry, dejected, and struggling to get by.

Chief (Bryan Cranston), King (Bob Balaban), little pilot Atari (Koyu Rankin), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) make their way around Trash Island in Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs."

Our principal cast includes the gossipmonger Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum)
and former baseball team mascot Boss (Bill Murray). Eventually, our attentions settle on Chief (Bryan Cranston), an independent former stray who joins forces with Atari (Koyu Rankin), a 12-year-old "little pilot" who has crash-landed on the island to find his old pet, whom Atari's uncle, the mayor, made the first canine banished to the garbage island.

Based on a Roald Dahl novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox was, in theory, a film for families. But it was first and foremost a Wes Anderson movie and Isle of Dogs is even more so. This colorful production is full of style, but whereas that was all Grand Budapest had going for it, this one has substance to support it. Anderson's inspirations have always been somewhat esoteric (having revisited his first three after this, it's strange to see homages to movies as famous as Heat and The Godfather) and they've only grown more so with time. Isle of Dogs is very immersed in Japanese culture. Opening titles explain that human characters speak their native tongues, while dogs have been translated into English.

I can't pretend to begin to know what the filmmaker is celebrating and paying tribute to, but even without that knowledge, Isle is a highly appealing and unique little movie. There is tasteful score by Alexandre Desplat, who succeeded Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh as Anderson's go-to composer beginning with Mr. Fox. There is rich characterization by familiar Anderson alums like Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Frances McDormand. Those who are new to this universe, like Cranston and Greta Gerwig (who voices an American exchange student determined to uncover official conspiracy), are perfect fits. The whole affair is spirited and lovable. It's creative without being enamored with its creativity and eccentric not just for the sake of it (the way that, say, Rian Johnson's Anderson knock-off The Brothers Bloom was).

We're only three months into the year, and winter is typically a time for bad movies, so it's premature to pour too much praise on this. But Isle of Dogs is almost as delightful as Fantastic Mr. Fox, which puts it in rarified air among all cinema, not just animation. Unfortunately, since it is animated, Isle has little chance of being recognized in any category other than Best Animated Feature, with the possible exception of Original Score. That would return Anderson to contention for the same award he lost to Up and pit him against the always formidable competition of Pixar and Disney.

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson:
Fantastic Mr. Fox The Grand Budapest Hotel The Darjeeling Limited The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou The Royal Tenenbaums Rushmore Bottle Rocket

Now in Theaters: A Quiet Place Ready Player One Unsane Black Panther Red Sparrow A Wrinkle in Time
Stop Motion Animation: Anomalisa Frankenweenie Coraline

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Reviewed April 5, 2018.



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