Posted: 03 Apr 2018 06:00 AM PDT
Review by C.J. Bunce
In that niche area of dystopian dog movies (that’s the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog and… ?), Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs not only soars to the top of the list, it’s a great film in all sorts of categories: it’s new, yet a classic children’s story, it’s a timely political allegory, and it’s a solid movie about dogs. We knew Anderson had a grasp on animals in his surprisingly good Fantastic Mr. Fox, but audiences will soon learn he also understands dogs and dog behavior. The trailers don’t really prepare moviegoers for what lies ahead. Sure, it’s about an island of exiled dogs so of course audiences are in for a bleak ride, complete with at least one dead canine, lots of dogs in peril as well as many mutilated and diseased. Yet Isle of Dogs is surprisingly grand in scope, thought-provoking, and even heartwarming. And epic–don’t be surprised if you start thinking about the closest Martin Scorcese or Stanley Kubrick movie while you’re glued to the screen. Despite some witty dialogue in places from Anderson’s smart script, this is less comedy and more drama than his past efforts.
The dystopian world is better realized, bigger in scope, and yet more personal than typical futurist visions, beyond that dismal hopeless doom of Mad Max, The Postman, Escape From New York, Twelve Monkeys, Snowpiercer, Looper, Logan’s Run, and District 9. Isle of Dogs is probably closer to WALL-E and Planet of the Apes in feel. Isle of Dogs is gloomy and dark and bleak, but it offers a ray of hope for the future from a 12-year-old Japanese boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and a freckle-faced, high school exchange student named Tracy from Ohio (Greta Gerwig), both out to defy an autocratic government’s ban on dogs. That’s thanks in major part to the vivid, eye-popping world of future Japan filmed by celebrated Aardman Animations stop-motion cinematographer Tristan Oliver (A Close Shave, The Wrong Trousers, Chicken Run), and the encompassing sounds from this year’s Oscar-winning composer for The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter series, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, The Golden Compass). As to the stop-motion, audiences can marvel at how far Hollywood has come since the Ray Harryhausen era. The film follows Anderson’s design choices first seen in his Fantastic Mr. Fox and only continues to add to the unbelievable magical movements carried forward by Aardman’s achievements. And instead of a typical Romantic, programmatic score, Desplat’s best choices can be found in his use of loud, almost frightening Japanese taiko drums, Fumio Hayasaka’s haunting theme from Seven Samurai, the more celebratory bits from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, and a simple recurring dog whistle.
Anderson offers up admirable tributes to Japanese culture and film, everywhere from costume design to modern TV reporting stylings, to Hayao Miyazaki themes and Akira Kurosawa landscapes, to traditional imagery like beautiful ukiyo-e on walls and cherry blossoms floating by at the right time. Isle of Dogs finds a firm footing on the children’s classics shelf of your film library, alongside Roald Dahl’s Mr. Fox but also his Willy Wonka. It also has much in common in tone with Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. The political allegory is thick and layered, a mix of the nuanced and the obvious, a mirror reflection of society that you’d have found years ago in a Frank Capra movie. Science is mocked, scorned, and worse. Experts are traitorous and immigrants are exiled. It’s also graphic in parts at a baser level, showing an animated meal from a dumpster with creepy crawlies that may make your stomach turn, plus an open chest surgery, bloody, torn body parts, and dogs with missing eyes and open wounds.
As with Anderson’s other films, you’ll find some new as well as the usual subjects in the voiceover department, including Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Anjelica Huston, Roman Coppola, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, and Courtney B. Vance. Yoko Ono’s scene is brief but spectacular, appearing with the high school girl in a surreal parallel to scenes from last month’s high school marchers across America. McDormand may have the most lines in the film as a TV reporter, and Scarlett Johansson’s familiar voice might sneak by some as a show dog on the dog island. Goldblum gets the best lines–and probably the most overt humor that the script could have used more of–as a member of the core dog team trying to help the boy find his dog Spots–his is the only unmistakable voice that may take some out of the movie with each line. But the weight of the film rests solidly with Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of stray dog Chief. Despite some criticisms, the unusual use of language by Anderson makes sense. In parts U.S. audiences get to hear the Japanese dialogue without subtitles, and the meaning is always clear. Presumably the Japanese audience watching the same version is going to get a similar, reverse of the experience. In other segments both U.S. and Japanese text is shown.
It’s as good all-around as Fantastic Mr. Fox, and as insightful films go, it may be even better. For many it will be your best experience in a Wes Anderson screening yet. And incredibly imaginative. Isle of Dogs, written and directed by Anderson, arrives in U.S. theaters this weekend.
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