Isle of Dogs – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Fur will fly, snouts will sneeze, and drums will pound in Wes Anderson’s newest feature film, an animated adventure about a Japanese boy’s attempts to reunite with his beloved dog.

It’s an alternate reality – a futuristic version of Japan in which corrupt mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) exiles all dogs (strays, house pets, and therapy dogs alike) because of a canine flu that causes odd behavior. To set an example, the mayor sends his 12-year-old ward’s dog, Spots, to Trash Island as the first exiled animal. But young Atari (Koyu Rankin) misses Spots too much and steals a plane to go search for him.

The Little Pilot

Atari crash lands on the isle of dogs to find a civilization of scavenger canines. Four former house pets (the voices of Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum) and one stray (Bryan Cranston) come to his aid in finding Spots. Other dogs around Trash Island also agree to help the boy. Known among the talking dogs as “the little pilot,” Atari must be reunited with his dog because as the former show-dog, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), proclaims: “He’s a 12-year-old boy. Dogs love those.”

Back in Japan, Kobayashi and his feline-loving regime do whatever it takes to stop a team of scientists working on a dog flu vaccine. An American exchange student studying journalism (voiced by Greta Gerwig) delves deep into a suspected conspiracy about the dog exile and the research team working on the cure. When she learns about Atari’s brave rescue attempt, she develops a crush on the boy even though they’ve never met. Despite its darker elements, the story contains plenty of humor in various forms, from throwaway lines to sight gags, and even the occasional pun.

An Assortment of Talent

The look and sound of this film are its strongest assets. The animation includes depth and texture that makes the dogs look cuddly enough to pet their fur or pat their heads as they stare with puppy eyes in their canine anticipation. Likewise, the humans appear soft enough to touch or embrace. Anderson’s films often have a painterly feel to them, and Isle of Dogs is no exception. Filled with perfectly placed refuse from its previous usage, the island makes a distastefully artful background for Atari’s planned search and rescue mission.

The voice talents are exceptionally good, including many frequent Anderson collaborators, such as Bill Murray and Edward Norton. The music creates a decidedly Asian ambiance that adds to the authenticity and excitement. Some of the Japanese is translated into English by Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand), though much of it is spoken without translation or subtitles. Curiously, the dogs speak English, but can’t understand Japanese. These quirks are part of the overall package that viewers can embrace as delightful or discard as unrealistic.

And the story – well, that may be the weakest element of all. Is it a respectful tribute to Japanese culture and a testament to the unconditional love that dogs have for humans or is it a tasteless display of ethnic stereotyping where the only white American character (a child at that) is able to see the truth and fight for it? Yes, it’s all of those things and more. It’s an animated collage of humor, music, voices, language, race, species, science, technology, corruption, and love. It’s a Wes Anderson film.

Isle of Dogs

  • When the dogs of Japan develop a dangerous canine flu, they are exiled to an island full of trash.
  • Stars the voices of: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bab Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Genre: Animation/Adventure
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some violent images)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.

Other Films Directed by Wes Anderson Include:

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