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Dan's Review: Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs" is pure whimsy

Apr 05, 2018 01:12PM ● Published by Dan Metcalf

Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, and Koyu Rankin in Isle of Dogs - © 2018 Fox Searchlight.

Isle of Dogs (Fox Searchlight)

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.

Starring (voices of) Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Yojiro Noda, Frank Wood, Roman Coppola, Anjelica Huston.

Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura.

Directed by Wes Anderson.

GRADE: A

REVIEW:

Wes Anderson is an institution; an artist with no equal, no competition and no problem creating the most whimsical films ever made. When the lexicon of independent film is complete, there will be a special chapter dedicated to the man who created the likes of Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Despite the accolades, Anderson’s unique nature and body of work are an acquired taste, to be sure, but most who actually sample his fare can’t help but laugh at his depictions of human triumph over hubris. I fell in love with Anderson’s style with the release of Rushmore and my love for his work has not waned. You know what you’re getting from a Wes Anderson film, and he (almost) never disappoints. Of all his successes, I was perhaps most surprised by his first attempt at an animated feature with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Always moving outside the norm, Anderson chose to animate using stop-motion puppetry. While considered by many as an antiquated form, this stop-motion method became part of the charm; an additional character in the hands of Anderson. His latest film is Isle of Dogs, his second animated feature about a mythical Japanese world in which canines are ostracized to a remote island used for garbage disposal.

Steeped in feudal traditions an warfare, cat lovers dominate the political world of Megasaki, where the stoic and brutal Mayor Kobyashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-wrote the film) banishes the city’s dogs to the trash island. Mayor Kobayashi’s adopted and distant nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) doesn’t agree with his uncle’s decree and sets out on a rickety plane to search for his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Atari is met by a group of dogs that include Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) who offer to help the boy who would risk his life for a dog. Along the way, the dogs encounter the beautiful Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) Oracle (Tilda Swinton) and Gondo (Harvey Keitel). Meanwhile back in the city, Kobayashi’s political machine deals with a pro-dog resistance led by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who tries to expose a governmental cover-up involving the mysterious death of dog research scientist and his surviving assistant Yoko-ono (voiced by THE Yoko Ono). As a plot to annihilate the dogs (instead of simple banishment) unfolds, the truth behind Kobayashi’s brutal reign is brought to light.

Isle of Dogs is right at home with Anderson’s other great work. It’s a fun, funny and whimsical fantasy that hits all the right subtle notes, meshing great voice acting, quirky animation, stop-motion/puppet artistry, deliberately choreographed cinematography, flawless editing and a hilarious, rapid-fire script.

Some have made hay over the perceived “cultural appropriation” in Isle of Dogs, with its overtly Japanese setting. I’m not going to indulge in a deep discussion about such things, but I will suggest that Anderson’s unique narrative style and absurd view of human foibles fits into any cultural setting, be it real (Royal Tennenbaum’s New York) or fictional (Grand Budapest Hotel’s eastern Europe). Trying to read anything else into his intentions or projecting unintentional umbrage is adding to the diluted world of artistry in which everything is sacred an nothing is permitted.  

It should be noted that almost all of the humans in Isle of Dogs speak the native Japanese language, without subtitles. The only exception is occasional narration from Courtney B. Vance and the appearance of an interpreter (Frances McDormand). Strangely enough, subtitles are not needed, as you can tell what the characters are feeling, despite the language barrier. I think the decision to avoid subtitles adds to the charm of the film, making it an even more universal experience.   

Isle of Dogs is a joy, even if you are a “cat person.” Go see it - and give your doggy a special treat when you get home.     

    

Isle of Dogs Trailer

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