Arts movie review

Who let the dogs out?

Exploring a different take on humanity with man’s best friend

8529 isle of dogs
On his quest to find Spots, Atari and his canine companions meet Jupiter and Oracle.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura
Screenplay by Wes Anderson
Starring Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, and Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG-13
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Looking at Wes Anderson’s filmography, one could glean his quirky mannerisms of film. The Grand Budapest Hotel featured pastel sets, concise dialogue, and charming characters. Moonrise Kingdom was described as whimsical and eccentric, featuring known stars such as Bill Murray and Bruce Willis. Fantastic Mr. Fox, based off of the Roald Dahl book of the same name, used a very distinct yet classic, handmade animation technique. Anderson’s latest film, Isle of Dogs, presents yet another unique player into the world of Hollywood.

The story of Isle of Dogs is fairly simple. Set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, the villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to Trash Island, blaming them for the recent uprise of canine flu. This becomes the catalyst for Atari Kobayashi’s (Koyu Rankin) quest to find his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). The 12-year-old hijacks a plane and flies out to Trash Island, and the adventure begins after he crash-lands and meets a pack of banished dogs accompanied by an odd stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston).

My first impressions of the film were that it was colorfully animated, entertaining, and very Wes Anderson-esque. Some may feel off-put by the animation style of Isle of Dogs, but I personally found it very eye-catching and interesting to look at.

However, one thing that did stick out as unusual was the macabre elements present in Isle of Dogs, contrasting with the otherwise light-hearted, snarky tone of the film. Within the introduction sequence, we’re delivered images of a dog tearing another dog’s ear off and of maggot-infested food. Later on, we see living seafood get jovially chopped up and turned into sushi. We even get a scene of a surgery, with blood and guts in full view for the audience.

The overall design of the movie is that of a very stereotypical look at Japanese culture, possibly to alienate the human characters by overexagerrating their mannerisms and settings. Bright red buildings highlight Megasaki’s skyline, and posters of Mayor Kobayashi ominously stare down into the streets. Meanwhile, other art involved transport the modern city back to the Edo period, with nods to delicately painted folding screens and Hokusai’s works.

Another note that becomes very apparent in Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s desire to portray the dogs’ humanity. This shows most prominently in the fact that the dogs speak English while the humans speak Japanese, creating a distinct language barrier right off the bat. Immediately, Anderson’s target audience sympathizes more with the dogs because they can understand them better than the humans, who have cruelly excommunicated all dogs, save for Atari, the one link between these two separate worlds. On the other hand, actions speak louder than words, and this becomes especially true when the dogs aren’t speaking. The audience is constantly confronted by the large, emoting eyes of the canine characters and dog owners alike and will easily recognize habitual, endearing mannerisms. Character development also helps to humanize the dogs, whether it be through romances, friendships, or changes of heart.

These concepts carry the story of the film, which plays out like a miniseries with the passing of each act. At face value, the film can be seen as one boy’s brave journey to find and rescue his beloved dog from Trash Island. Going deeper, some would say that the film focuses on the human corruption — as one would find out by following Mayor Kobayashi’s arc — or on the concept of animal rights — as evidenced by the introduction of the allegedly cannibalistic pack of dogs.

The inclusion of such a notable cast would also be hard to forget, from talents such as Jeff Goldblum (the gossip-prone Duke), Greta Gerwig (the snappy American foreign exchange student Trace Walker), Frances McDormand (Interpreter Nelson), and Scarlett Johansson (the former show dog Nutmeg). As a taiko nerd, I would also be hard-pressed not to mention Alexandre Desplat’s charming soundtrack, in which he masterfully blends Western and Eastern music together.

Overall, in some ways, Isle of Dogs is a surprising departure from Wes Anderson’s tradition of fluffy, quaint movies. Even so, I would not advise people away from watching this amusing film.