Isle of Dogs, rated PG-13
Starring Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Courtney B. Vance
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars
With Isle of Dogs, director Wes Anderson returns to stop-motion animation nine years after his positively sublime Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and I’m not even remotely surprised that the result is a feast for the eyes and senses. Isle of Dogs is also weirder, darker and more emotional than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even as Anderson includes his trademark stylistic devices (symmetrical framing, horizontal tracking shots, deadpan humor), he’s still constantly surprising us and moving into new territory with each film (when writing about his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I remarked that it was the first Anderson picture in which I experienced real fear and dread).
Isle of Dogs takes place in the near future in Japan, where Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki City outlaws dogs following a canine flu epidemic. All dogs are systemically transported to Trash Island, a dumping ground off the coast of Japan, where they scourge amidst decay and ruin. In a symbolic gesture, the first dog sent to Trash Island, Spots (Liev Schreiber), belongs to Kobayashi’s ward and nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin).
Atari, once separated from his best friend and loyal protector, escapes Megasaki City and flies to Trash Island, where he hopes to find Spots. He’s aided by a pack of aimless dogs, including the self-reliant stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who has proudly never answered to a master. Chief, along with Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban), agree to help Atari find Spots, as they embark on a journey across Trash Island. Meanwhile, an American student studying abroad in Japan, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), suspects Kobayashi is behind the outbreak of the canine epidemic, as well as silencing the voices of scientists who may have a cure. She begins a passionate attempt to expose Kobayashi’s corruption and bring the canines back to the mainland.
For those overwhelmed by the sheer amount of talent lending their voices to Anderson’s film, have no fear – each dog (and human character) is so fully developed and each actor’s voice so distinct that there’s rarely any question about the identity of anyone in this large ensemble. These canines are all given such specific idiosyncrasies, and each of the actors (many of whom are part of Anderson’s regular troupe) are used to perfection – Goldblum’s gossip-hound Duke, Murray’s agreeable former sports mascot Boss, Norton’s obedient and domesticated Rex, Tilda Swinton’s visionary pug Oracle (whose visions come from the ability to understand television), and Harvey Keitel as the leader of a tribe of (supposedly) cannibal dogs (even in his brief scene, Keitel gives such humanity and feeling to, well, a talking dog).
The emotional arc of the film is best showcased, though, in the slow domestication of Chief. He’s a tough, bitter dog who is resistant to obeying any kind of master, and yet, as they travel across Trash Island, he forms an emotional bond with Atari that gives Anderson’s movie its heart and soul. Anderson, ever the brilliant curator of music, twice uses the song I Won’t Hurt You by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band to nearly tear-inducing results.
Perhaps the film’s greatest asset is the visualization of these creatures – like Gore Verbinski’s Rango (2011), Isle of Dogs isn’t afraid to show us textured, battered, sometimes unattractive animals weathered by their circumstances. And yet, when one stares at these canines head-on and watches tears form in their eyes, it’s an indescribable feeling. That’s something I won’t soon forget about Isle of Dogs – the eyes of the dogs. Anderson also really puts these canines in danger and makes the stakes truly high for them – they’re treated like real characters. It’s rare that an animated film is rated PG-13, but I think the emotional power Isle of Dogs achieves through going to darker places is rewarding for children. The kids in my audience really responded to where the movie took them and the range of emotions onscreen.
It’s worth mentioning that I always find myself looking at all edges of the frame in Anderson’s movies – he has a way of drawing my eyes to different corners and details, making the absolute most of the visual medium. I was overwhelmed with joy while watching Isle of Dogs – I was smiling the entire time, and it’s easily the most remarkable movie of the new year thus far.
On a side note, I have a hard time believing Anderson and Noah Baumbach, close friends and sometimes collaborators, both included the line “You should see the other dog” in their most recent films by coincidence (it’s Dustin Hoffman’s repeated punchline to a joke in Baumbach’s wonderful The Meyerowitz Stories from last year). Well done.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.