Visionary filmmaker Wes Anderson, the mind behind “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” has another masterpiece on his hands. Though it suffers in developing its cast, “Isle of Dogs“ may be one of Anderson’s finest films yet.
In a dystopian future of Japan, the Kobayashi clan, which holds a centuries-old vendetta against dogs, sends all canines to Trash Island during a dog flu outbreak. The clan’s fear tactics turn Japan against man’s best friend, bar a small group of protesters who believe a conspiracy is afoot. However, the clan’s orphaned ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), flies to Trash Island to rescue his beloved dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber).
Atari meets a pack of alpha male dogs who, despite not understanding his language, choose to help him find Spots, as he’s the first human to search for their pet. The stoic pack leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), is reluctant to assist, being a stray dog with a bad history of human interaction, but he slowly puts his past behind him as he grows close to Atari.
While most character arcs are practically nonexistent due to a lack of screen time, especially two underdeveloped romantic subplots that amount to nothing more than puppy love, the movie thoroughly develops Atari, Chief and Spot. Atari struggles to communicate directly with the dogs due to the language barrier, but their character development shows through their inflections and body language, telling an emotionally gripping story that connects them as kin.
Although it helps the audience understand the characters’ emotions regardless of what language they speak, the approach to dog/human interaction gets too simplistic. As subtitles are mostly absent, Japanese dialogue boils down to short statements with bits of English thrown in, and the only complex dialogue is covered by characters translating it into English. This forces Atari and other major characters to communicate with little more than basic expressions.
“Isle of Dogs” doesn’t stray from dark subject matter, as it gives a biting look into themes of fear and mistruth. The two themes fit together in various ways throughout the film, primarily with the Kobayashi clan’s anti-dog propaganda, but also in more subtle ways, such as Chief’s fear of humans and the rumors spread through the pack at multiple points in the movie.
Those familiar with Anderson’s previous work will recognize that “Isle of Dogs” shares its stop-motion animation style with another excellent film of his, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The movie doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details of the world it presents, and with the stunning detail in each character model to the desolate environments, it truly sells the grungy dog-eat-dog world (as in there are literal cannibal canines in the movie).
While the film handles its story maturely, it contains excellent deadpan humor as well. It isn’t forced into the movie for a cheap laugh, instead fitting in with character dialogue naturally. Aside from character-driven humor, there’s wordplay that will fly over audience members’ heads if they don’t pay attention, from a military-grade canine tooth to how the movie’s title, intentional or not, sounds like the phrase, “I love dogs.”
“Isle of Dogs” has its flaws, such as its underdeveloped cast and overly simplistic Japanese dialogue. However, the engaging story delivers in almost every other area, expressing its themes through the few characters that are developed. Combined with its visual flair and deadpan humor, “Isle of Dogs” is a treat for Wes Anderson followers, stop-motion animation fans and dog lovers alike.
“Isle of Dogs” is rated PG-13 and runs for one hour and 41 minutes.
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