I Love Dogs - An 'Isle of Dogs' Review
by Will Lindus
As a filmmaker, Wes Anderson is characterized by his quirky sensibilities and his use of symmetrical aesthetics in framing shots. While these aren’t unfair descriptors for Anderson’s body of work, the focus solely on his visual style does a disservice to the amount of heart he finds within his characters and within the narratives they inhabit. Each of these elements blend beautifully in Isle of Dogs, which had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. This might be Anderson’s darkest film to date - as well as his most optimistic.
Set in an alternate-reality Japan (specifically, the city of Megasaki) and filmed entirely via stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs tells the story of a trash island where dogs, infected with dog flu, are quarantined and forced to survive by eating garbage and fighting one another. There’s an obvious metaphor at play here with an entire group ostracized due to hatred and xenophobia, but this isn’t a political film and its metaphor frames the story instead of driving it. No, the core focus of Isle of Dogs is the bond between man and dog.
The story takes shape as a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane and travels to the titular isle of dogs so that he can reunite with his former guard dog, Spots (Liev Shrieber). He is joined by a ragtag pack of wild dogs he befriends on the island: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the stray with a biting problem, Chief (Bryan Cranston). Along their journey, they have to fend off the soldiers and robotic dogs under the command of Mayor Kobayashi, who just so happens to be Atari’s distant uncle and a noted dog hater.
Each of the dogs in this pack has a unique personality, with different ties to the world of humans that abandoned them. But their unifying feature is their loyalty. These dogs stick together and stick with Atari, even when it might not be in their best interest to proceed. Even the curmudgeon Chief finds reasons to aid Atari, and though reluctant at first, it is the story about how he bonds with Atari that centers this film.
Side note: This movie made me immediately go home and hug my dogs.
The world of Isle of Dogs feels like the canine equivalent of Mad Max’s dystopian future. Buildings and factories sit in disarray, bags of garbage rot in the background, and the occasional flea darts across the fur of the good, good doggos that join Atari on his quest. Anderson’s world is ugly and brutal, but filled with optimism that those who oppress cannot endure, and those who band together cannot fail.
Of course, the city of Megasaki isn’t much nicer. Though it is in better condition, any world with a political discourse that enables a sizable faction to be anti-dog is not a world I’m in any rush to visit. Fortunately, there is a group of political upstarts, lead by high school transfer student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) who seek to overthrow the anti-dog regime. And, yeah, this storyline is a bit problematic when looked at through the lens of a white savior taking charge in an Asian political struggle. Alternatively, it is encouraging to see the narrative of high school students overthrowing fear-mongering political leaders in a film that debuts right as the March For Our Lives movement is picking up steam.
Bottom Line: I love dogs. Isle of Dogs. I love Isle of Dogs.
5 out of 5 Bear Paws