A film review by Craig J. Koban April 23, 2018

RANK:  #24

ISLE OF DOGS jjj
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2018, PG-13, 101 mins.

 

Bryan Cranston as Chief (voice)  /  Koyu Rankin as Atari Kobayashi (voice)  /  Edward Norton as Rex (voice)  /  Liev Schreiber as Spots (voice)  /  Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker (voice)  /  Bill Murray as Boss (voice)  /  Bob Balaban as King (voice)  /  Jeff Goldblum as Duke (voice)  /  Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg (voice)  /  Kunichi Nomura as Mayor Kobayashi (voice)  /  Tilda Swinton as The Oracle Dog (voice)  /  Akira Ito as Professor Watanabe (voice)  /  Frances McDormand as Interpreter Woman (voice)  /  Akira Takayama as Major-Domo (voice)  /  Courtney B. Vance as Narrator (voice)  /  F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter (voice)  /  Fisher Stevens as Scrap (voice)  /  Yojiro Noda as News Anchor (voice)  /  Mari Natsuki as Auntie (voice)  /  Frank Wood as Simul-Translate Machine (voice)  /  Harvey Keitel as Gondo (voice)  /  Yoko Ono as Watanabe's Assistant (voice)  /  Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ben Watanabe (voice)  /  Kara Hayward as (voice)

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

 

 

 

 

After finally watching Wes Andersonís ISLE OF DOGS last night Iíve concluded that Iíll take his esoteric brand of joyously idiosyncratic stop motion weirdness over any clean and polished Pixar or Disney animated film any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  

This is the second stop motion animated film from the 48-year-old auteur (after 2009's FANTASTIC MR. FOX), and it proudly and masterfully represents yet another wondrously bizarre and visually magnificent hodgepodge that's laced with multiple cinematic references and a dense thematic undercurrent.  That, and ISLES OF DOGS is invitingly replete with a love of, yes, man's relationship with canines and Japanese culture, and that in turn is infused into the weird and eccentric drollness that has typified Anderson's films throughout his career.  It's a film as bursting with unbridled imagination and wickedly sly humor as any from the acclaimed filmmaker. 

ISLES OF DOGS - despite its cutesy title - is the closest thing that Anderson has come to make a film that could be truly labeled as dystopian.  In a near future Japan a viscous dog flu has spread through much of the canine population, which leads to mass public panic about the dangerous feared possibilities of it being passed on to humans.  The anti-dog and pro-cat mayor of the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decided to put his authoritarian foot down and sign a decree into law that bans all dogs from living in the city moving forward, indefinitely banishing them all to the nearby Trash Island, which is a secluded island that - you guessed right - is made of trash.  Even though some of the nation's leading scientists, like Professor Watanabe (Ken Wantanabe) have insisted that the medical community is close to finding a cure, the vile mayor nevertheless turns a blind eye to such claims. 

 

 

We then meet a motley crew of dogs that have been desperately trying to stave off hunger and loneliness while on the isolated atoll, which includes a few house pets (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum), as well as one purebred (Scarlett Johanson), and one grizzled and grumpy dog that appears to have never been adopted before, Chief (Bryan Cranston).  All of their collective existence of absolute solitude is changed forever with the appearance of the mayor's own rebellious 12-year-old nephew , Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has crash landed a stolen plane on the island in search of his own long lost pooch that apparently was unjustly banished.  Now, you'd be right in wondering how dogs and Japanese characters would adequately communicate with one another (and to the audience), but as an early and quite humorous title card note indicates in the film, the Japanese characters will be heard in their original language (untranslated with subtitles, but often verbally translated via an onscreen character voiced by Frances McDormand) and the dog's barks will be directly translated into English. 

This is an Anderson film in every possible manner, right down to the painstakingly centered compositions, his visual playfulness, the quirky personas, and a willingness to overlook simplistic genre labels.  As a work of pure fantasy, ISLE OF DOGS is as meticulously crafted from the bottom up as any other live action example that I can think of.  Even though the film is the product of some of the most handsomely mounted stop motion animation ever achieved for the silver screen, Anderson's bizarre universe here is fully realized and executed to inspire maximum awe and wonder.  The sheer density of the imagery in each frame of ISLE OF DOGS is absolutely extraordinary and the film is a triumph of whimsical innovation.  I've always maintained that the finest animated films, say, in the Pixar or Disney canon can't match a stop motion animated film's sense of texture, and this is abundantly true throughout ISLE OF DOGS.  The canine and human characters don't look real, per se, seeing as they are as proportionally exaggerated as any other hand or computer drawn cartoon figure, but they manage to feel real and three dimensional in ways that computer animation can't muster.  In a way, the obsessive attention to detail and patience that's required to execute stop motion is a pitch perfect marriage to Anderson's own aesthetic proclivities. 

ISLE OF DOGS still has the subversive comedic edge that Anderson loves to bath his films in - live action or not - and this effort pushes his incomparable level of spirited oddness to maximum levels (I especially loved how fight sequences are rendered as big clouds of smoke with arms and legs thrashing about to delineate the mayhem).  When things settle down Anderson and his crackerjack animators create small scale sequences of miraculous fluidity, such as one impeccable moment involving sushi being prepared in overhead close-up or a latter scene involving an organ transplant, both of which help to cement ISLE OF DOGS well apart from the pedestrian cuddliness of other family friendly animated films.  That's not to say that Anderson's film doesn't have an aura of adorability to it, which it does, but it's decidedly darker and frequently more macabre than any Pixar film would ever dare to be.  Anderson places more faith and respect in his audience's willingness to simply go with ISLE OF DOGS...even when it takes some murky turns.   

The film also has legitimately weighty things to say about topical themes that matter.  Like all great sci-fi and fantasy, ISLES OF DOGS uses its otherworldliness and fantastical settings to drive home points about issues that are relatable, such as mass hysteria, immigration and deportation, and a fear of the unknown and how that fear can be used to sway popular opinion when seeking political power.  ISLES OF DOGS could not be anymore outrageous on a level of its basic premise, but Anderson treats his themes with a solemnity that allows his film to have a sense of palpable dramatic urgency.  It could be easily said that Anderson perhaps fragments the narrative into too many tangents throughout (featuring multiple flashbacks and flash forwards to the point of potentially confusing both young and old viewers), but he keeps his narrative moving with a headstrong conviction.  The allegory of persecution and internment is hard to overlook here on multiple levels.  There have been some complaints that the film is guilty of cultural appropriation and negative stereotypes, which I think is unfair.  ISLE OF DOGS displays a reverence for Japanese culture while also satirizing aspects of it, not to mention that his cast indeed features Asian appropriate voice actors.  This is also not a literal representation of Japan, but an imagined, tongue in cheek interpretation of it. 

Plus, the movie has talking dogs, so there's that.   

But the dogs themselves are all terrifically delineated and well defined, especially Cranston's Chief, who unleashes some of the of the film's most acerbic zingers with a nonchalant deadpan gusto ("I'm not a violent dog.  I don't know why I bite!").  Also, a little bit of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Ed Norton go an awfully long way in terms of their abilities to voice their roles as straight as possible as to not typify or telegraph the madness that surrounds their furry doppelgangers.  Complimenting the film's lived in performances and its visual dynamism is the brilliant music score by Alexandre Desplat, who previously worked with Anderson before on FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, and MOONRISE KINGDOM.  The constant undulating banging of taiko drums serves as an ongoing anthem of sorts throughout ISLE OF DOGS, which helps fosters a sense of an epic storybook fable come lovingly to life.   

When the lights went down in my cinema and ISLE OF DOGS began I felt immediately transported into its world to the point where I felt like I was vicariously living within it, which is usually an accolade I bestow upon highly immersive live action fare.  One passive viewing of this will not suffice; this is a work that must be actively consumed multiple times in order to fully drink it all of its phenomenal minutiae.  There's a contagious level of bravura showmanship that's proudly on display all throughout ISLE OF DOGS.  It's a staggeringly beautiful achievement for the increasingly lost, but surely not dead stop motion animated art form, not to mention that it might be one of Anderson's most disarmingly charming and quietly amusing films.  I appreciated how the movie's thematic complexity matched the intricacies of the Herculean technical feats required to pull the whole endeavor off.  And there's an unmistakable tenderness injected into the absurd pathos on display throughout.  The best final praise I can give ISLE OF DOGS is that the film - in pure Wes Anderson form - is impossible to compartmentalize or categorize.  The film is its own highly unique anima, and like our most cherished of pet companions, that's precisely what makes it so ethereally special.  

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