Isle of Dogs (PG-13) ★★★

“Isle of Dogs” stars (the voices of) Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Courtney B. Vance and Greta Gerwig
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Isle of Dogs is a Treat for Audiences 

When people go to see a Wes Anderson film there are a few things they come to expect – clever dialogue, ornate sets, and scenes, and…at some point, Bill Murray. With his latest film, Isle of Dogs, his second stop-motion animation movie, Anderson checks all three boxes. The tale is set in a dystopian Japan and focuses on a group of dogs who are living on an island / garbage dump after the government banished them from the cities. The numerous dogs in the film are voiced by some Wes Anderson veterans (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum) and some newcomers (Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johannsson), while the humans are mostly voiced by Japanese actors and are subtitled. The film is humorous and inventive, but the over-the-top depiction of Japanese culture and somewhat dark undertone may not appeal to everyone.

The movie opens with a narrator (Courtney B. Vance, The Mummy, 2016), describing (via flashbacks) a battle between dogs and humans that resulted in the domestication of all dogs. Eventually, the long-standing peace between pet and master crumbles after all of the dogs succumb to a new, mysterious dog flu and allegedly pose a threat to the humans.  Although scientists are working on a cure, a new authoritarian government, led by Mayor Kobayashi (whose ancestor was killed in the dog-human war), assumes control. Kobayashi sends all of the dogs to a landfill island where they are now forced to fend for themselves. To prove the seriousness of his law, Mayor Kobayashi sends a dog from his own house to the landfill first.

The movie then jumps several years forward to the present where we meet five dogs on the island that have formed a pack: Rex (Edward Norton, Collateral Beauty, 2016), Boss (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, 2016), Duke (Jeff Goldblum, Thor: Ragnorak, 2017), King (Bob Balaban, Mascots, 2016), and Chief (Bryan Cranston, Last Flag Flying, 2016). Rex is the de facto leader of the group while Chief, a stray dog, is the group’s muscle and cynic. After the pack fights off a rival pack over rotting food, they discuss the hopelessness of their situation and lament over their past lives as house pets. As the conversation moves to rumors on the island of which Duke (voiced by Goldblum) hilariously always has the latest gossip, they are interrupted by a small plane that crashes on the island piloted by a small boy. The pack rescues the boy from his wreckage and discovers that he came to the island to find his long-lost pet, Spots. They also discover that the boy is Atari Kobayashi, the nephew of the cruel Mayor Kobayashi. The Mayor’s security forces send dog catchers and a robot dog to come physically retrieve Atari against his will, but the dog pack fends them off. Rex convinces his group that they should help Atari find Spots even if it is the last thing they do, although Chief is against this idea. 

Meanwhile, on the mainland, Kobayashi and his evil administration are concocting plans to wipe out all of the dogs but face resistance from student activists, former dog owners and protestors. The resistance believes they are close to a cure for the dogs and believe Kobayashi and his cabal created the ‘flu’ as a pretext to wipe out all dogs. The remainder of the film focuses on the fight to save the dogs and reunite Spots and Atari.

Coming off of the very successful Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs is another creative achievement from Wes Anderson. As a writer-director Anderson, has always been masterful with the attention to detail, and here he once again creates a rich visual experience that, although is animated, almost looks real at times. Anderson wrote the script based on an idea that he developed with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.

Although this is an animated film and is at its core a comedy (with many dog-related jokes), the story also serves as an allegory for serious topics. The film, under the guise of dog persecution, examines issues like the treatment of minorities, attacks on the press and science, and even genocide. Despite the gravity of these issues, the movie does not forget that it is still animated and makes sure to weave in humor, particularly from the dogs. It will cause pet owners chuckle throughout the movie.

Not everything in Isle of Dogs works though as the inclusion of Japanese culture can distract from the story and may annoy audiences by the end. Anderson’s creative instincts may have got the best of him as his heavy reliance on Japanese elements almost make the story feel like two different movies. However, for Wes Anderson fans, dog lovers, or people interested in well-made animated stories, this movie is a very solid showing from a uniquely talented filmmaker.

Bottom Line: Wes Anderson delivers in his latest stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs. This unique and heartwarming story is a witty tale of survival and will appeal to the dog lover in all of us (or anyone who has ever loved a pet).

Credits: Written and directed by Wes Anderson

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Chief), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Bill Murray (Boss), Edward Norton (Rex), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Courtney B. Vance (Narrator), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayaski), Bob Balaban (King), Koyu Rankin (Atari), Greta Gerwig (Tracy Walker)

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Running Time: 101 minutes

Jessica DeLong © March 30, 2018