FILM REVIEW – ISLE OF DOGS. With the voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images. 101 minutes.
Long a favorite of certain critics and the arthouse crowd, Wes Anderson’s films have always left this reviewer cold. Thus, it is with surprise and delight that it can be reported his latest, ISLE OF DOGS finally puts his highly stylized (the less charitable would say “limited”) skills to work in service of an actual story. Although the screenplay is credited to Anderson alone, he shares the story credit with three other writers: Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. This collaboration may have made all the difference.
Like the somewhat overrated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), the film is done in stop-motion animation. For reasons never made clear, it is set in a near-future Japan where strongman Mayor Kobayashi (voice of Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki issues a decree banning all dogs and exiling them to “Trash Island.” Supposedly, this is to prevent the spread of disease, but when the cure for the disease is found it’s clear he simply hates dogs.
The conceit of the film is that the dogs speak to each other in English, but the Japanese humans speak in often untranslated Japanese. However, there’s enough translation or English-speaking that one can follow the action. On the island, the dogs have been abandoned and it seems to have devolved into, literally, a “dog-eat-dog” world. But then Atari (Koyu Rankin) arrives, in search of his missing dog. The boy is a ward of the mayor, further complicating matters.
The bulk of the story is how the dogs (voiced by, among others, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Scarlett Johansson) manage to liberate themselves with some help from Atari and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig). It’s fanciful nonsense, but it’s played straight so that it seems like a fairy tale for grown-ups. Children might be bored by the relatively slow pace and lack of much in the way of physical humor, while very young children might find some of the proceedings disturbing. Parents are advised to proceed with caution.
What makes this standout from other Anderson films (besides having a plot) is that the characters – particularly the dogs – are much more well-rounded than the caricatures who you usually parade through his movies. We find ourselves rooting for these literal underdogs, as they fight back against all odds. For a change Anderson’s visuals are in service to his story, with Trash Island managing to be both bleak and visually fascinating, contrasting with the formal structures of Megasaki.
While the film boasts an extensive voice cast (also credited are Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand) few have distinctive enough voices that you’ll recognize many of them outside of the closing credits. The key exceptions are Goldblum (as Duke) and Courtney B. Vance (as the film’s narrator).
“Isle of Dogs” may or may not represent a turning point for Anderson; time will tell, Yet, for a change, there’s enough substance to his whimsy to make this an engaging fable about a society thinking it can wall off part of its community without consequences, making it as timely as it is entertaining.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.