Review: Isle of Dogs

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Did you hear the rumour?

In the near future, a tyrannical mayor of Japanese city Megasuki, Mayor Kobayashi, deems all dogs be exiled to a remote island due to a dangerous canine virus. Now, dejected and unwanted, the dogs of the island gain new purpose when the young, twelve year old ward of the mayor arrives, hoping to rescue his childhood companion.

It feels like Wes Anderson has out-Wes Anderson’ed himself.
With an animation style in the vein of his previous animated feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox of 2009, completely devoted to his obsession with symmetry and with oriental styling, Isle of Dogs is a bizarre and off-kilter experience that still remains charming. However, it is not for kids.

Yes, despite being about dogs, being fully animated… the film has a strangeness and a deliberateness that children will not appreciate. For starters, Isle of Dogs is set in a fictitious Japanese city called Megasuki were naturally everyone speaks Japanese. However the film deliberately doesn’t have subtitles. Instead, this is used as a means to create a language barrier between humans and their canine counterparts; the dogs speak in English.

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Luckily for us though, there’s always a character on hand to provide even rough translation of what is going on, including television hosts and narrators, because point B for why this isn’t a kids film is how Isle of Dogs has a political subtext. The mayor of Megasuki has an agenda against dogs, and it is up to rebellious youths to stop him, including a foreign exchange student.
The story however follow the journey of five dogs, all with the manliest of names: Duke, Boss, King, Rex and Chief, as well as their human companion Atari. The voice cast is, of course for an Anderson movie, vast: Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson. But the film focuses mostly on the dog Chief (Cranston) who is a stray dog, compared to the others of the group, who remember what it was like living with humans. The performances all lend themselves perfectly to a very “Wes Anderson”, quirky script, with humour often so deadpan and subtle many jokes might soar over your head. A running gag of “Have you heard the rumour?” followed by all of the dogs asking “What rumour?” in different fashions but simultaneously, is bizarre in its infectious humour.

Of course there is more than script humour, a lot of the film sports visual gags also. The artistry of Wes Anderson’s 2014 film Grand Budapest Hotel came from the ridiculous amounts of symmetry within shot composition as well as the sets and interiors themselves. While Isle of Dogs doesn’t have the joy of real, physical places that had such beautiful symmetry, its nature as an animated feature means Anderson can make ninety-nine percent of shots symmetrical. Which is wonderful to look at. The camera starting in with a close-up, then retreating into wider and wider shots, changing what was at first a small amount of stop-motion animation into a grand diorama of characters and beautiful model work.
It is very much stop-motion as well. Almost relishing in its oddness; juxtaposing with Anderson’s own style. More stuttering than 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, but somewhat deliberately so, while any characters shown on televisions or monitors was delightfully implemented in hand-drawn animation.

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It is a quirky and enjoyable movie, mostly designed for adults but not especially scary or mature.
The only grievances here would be the lack of “things to do” for our four other dogs (Chief gets most of the screen time,) they are relegated mostly to comedic fodder. Which isn’t bad, but when everything is said and done… this aspect felt a little unfortunate. There was also one scene, one scene, where the film slipped up. The film painstakingly ensures a reason why we should understand the Japanese characters without subtitles, except for one scene, where two Japanese characters are speaking to each other but a dog (of course, speaking English) translates for one of the characters. It is incredibly minor, but noticeable.

Overall, Isle of Dogs was a delight. A quirky oddity, sure to entertain Wes Anderson fans and fans of animation in general.

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Additional Marshmallows: Say out loud “Isle of Dogs”… then say “I Love Dogs”.

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