Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

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Wes Anderson creates a whimsical fable about the importance of family in this animated follow-up to The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Never has there been a director whose style translated more directly to the format of animation than Wes Anderson. His highly stylized cinematography, complete with dioramas and intricately detailed diagrams and costume and set decoration have often merited the criticism that his films are style over substance. But in Isle of Dogs, Anderson finds a perfect harmony between his style and serving a bigger story.

Isle of Dogs follows the adventures of a young boy named Atari Kobayashi, an orphan who lives with his emotionally distant uncle, the Major of Megasaki City, Mr. Kobayashi. The Kobayashi have historically loved cats and were the losers in an ancient battle that established dogs as a preeminent pet in Japan. Over the centuries, the Kobayashis have planned for a scenario where cats will once again be the dominant pet in Japan and have installed a plan to have all the dogs in Japan sent to a large landfill outside of Japan called Trash Island. Kobayashi makes it a point to send Atari’s personal bodyguard dog, Spots Kobayashi (Liev Schrieber), to Trash Island as its first resident to prove he is serious about controlling the dog population. There is a resistance, led by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). Atari steals a plane to go to Trash Island and crashes, where he is saved by a pack of dogs; a former Japanese baseball team mascot named Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and a stray who bites named Chief (Bryan Cranston). The dogs decide to help Atari try and find Spots, with the help of a pair of dogs/seers, Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), as Chief struggles to find his role with Atari and the world at large as a final solution deems to take care of the dogs on Trash Island.

Anderson utilizes a wide variety of animation styles in the film which really make it feel like a world of its own. The central story of the film is really touching and engrossing, as Chief struggles to find his role, not just in the pack but finding family and what that means to him as a stray. Cranston’s voice work is very nuanced and you empathize with his Chief. The vast majority of the cast is Anderson’s usual troop of players all delivering solid voiceover performances; especially Jeff Goldblum, whose gossipy Duke steals the show in most scenes his character is featured. But without a doubt, this is Cranston’s movie and Chief’s arc is very affecting, not unlike Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums or Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic. The film is full of whimsy and one of Anderson’s most accessible and rewatchable films. It explores similar themes of ennui and longing and divided families wanting to come together as other Anderson films, but does so in a way that feels distinct from his other films. Isle of Dogs is a lovely film that shows Anderson really making animation a natural progression from his film work and solid entry into his body of work.

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