Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

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3 stars

PG-13 | 

Director: Wes Anderson

by Jason Koenigsberg

Wes Anderson has done it again. Created an idiosyncratic film within his own singular vision that has a timeless quality. All of his movies take place in very artistic self-contained worlds. Even though Isle of Dogs says that it takes place in Japan, it is a Japan wholly original from the mind of its creator. The plot involves a plague that afflicts dogs and could hurt humans so the dogs are removed and isolated to an island landfill to survive on their own. One boy desperately misses his canine companion and goes rogue, taking practically a toy plane out to the island filled with garbage and to find his dog. He meets some other dogs voiced by Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum who help the boy on his quest. 

The plot for Isle of Dogs really does not matter. What matters the most in this film are the visuals and they are astounding. I was not sure how much of the animation was CGI or stop-motion and a second viewing is likely mandatory to adequately take in all the beautiful details in each frame. From reading the online press kit for Isle of Dogs it appears that this movie set the record for most stop motion characters with over 1,000 rendered. This is his second animated picture after The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and while neither of these films are his best, they are still highly entertaining and should be required viewing for any cinema lover. The visuals and music score by Alexandre Desplat with heavy influence of Eastern sounds of the Orient make Isle of Dogs an absolute pleasure to behold from an optical and acoustic standpoint. 

However the tone of the film is all over the place. It is not the typical laugh out loud comedy that Wes Anderson is known for. It is intellectual, and it is an emotional journey at times, but not the quirky style of comedy one might expect. Scenes that were meant to be funny, or maybe they were not, fall flat, and other scenes possibly meant to jerk tears did not succeed in doing so either. One cannot be a hundred perfect sure what Wes Anderson was going for with the mood, but once he sucks you into his vivid imaginative world, the audience may not be sure when they are supposed to laugh, or cry, or feel anything for that matter. In that sense Isle of Dogs is one of his coldest films which is ironic considering how cute some of the animated dogs are, yet viewers probably felt more warmth for Ralph Fiennes as a conman concierge from Wes Anderson’s last film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). He trades in laughs and empathy for a political allegory which is certainly not something Wes Anderson’s previous pictures have dealt with. It turns out to be a noble effort that works and Anderson could continue to infuse social and political commentary in his visionary worlds that he creates.

Like most recent Wes Anderson movies, the cast is huge and filled with big names from top to bottom. Some names were already mentioned above but Isle of Dogs also features voice work from Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand, recent Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig, and even Yoko Ono. Some of the voiceover performances work perfectly especially Bryan Cranston as a dog conflicted about helping the boy, F. Murray Abraham as the dog that narrates the film, and Frances McDormand as a Japanese to English interpreter. Others just seemed superfluous and unnecessary to show off that they could get big name actors to be in the movie. Johansson, Gerwig, Liev Schrieber and probably a few others did not serve any purpose by voicing their characters and took jobs away from talented voice actors that may have better served the roles. 

In the end Isle of Dogs is worth seeing on the big screen and like most Wes Anderson films will probably prove to be even more enjoyable on a second viewing. It is different enough from his previous films yet also has enough of what audiences expect from a Wes Anderson picture. It is a balancing act and our auteur walks the tightrope exceedingly well never falling onto either side to abandon his usual tropes and upset his most faithful fans, but also challenges them enough with ideas new to the Wes Anderson universe. 

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