Movie Review: ‘ISLE OF DOGS’ – A bone-fied classic


James Cole Clay // Film Critic


PG-13, 101 minutes.
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton

The precision of Wes Anderson’s work is undeniable and perhaps is the most distinct modern American filmmaker. Anderson and his team of artists leave no stoned unturned to squeeze every drop of detail when designing the winsome worlds he creates. His characters, however, are charming despite their faults, often brooding types haunted by grief with social complexes. Anderson, time after time, delivers with wit and charm that’s as reliable as a good boy greeting you at the door after a long day.

His latest and second venture into stop motion, ISLE OF DOGS, shows a softer side to the director’s work. It’s been said that Anderson has been too caught up in the beauty of his design, but the majority of the film takes place on a structure known as trash island, located off the shores of the fictitious Megasaki, Japan. Due to the Kobiashi Dynasty’s 150-year disdain for the species, dogs have been relegated to vermin.

A young boy known as Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), a.k.a. “the Little Pilot,” ventures to the island to find his lost dog Spot (Liev Schriber). Atari is rescued by former “inside dogs” Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The only naysayer is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a husky-voiced dog who has always been a stray and has a biting complex that serves as his existential crisis. Chief is up there with Anderson’s best characters. While FANTASTIC MR. FOX’s titular character was goofy and wily, Chief is principled and only cares about keeping his freewill in life.

ISLE OF DOGS is an unabashed work of honesty scripted by Anderson and frequent story collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, along with the new addition of Kunichi Nomura.

“Was I born to live in the wild?” — “Should I Obey?” These are some of the meditative thoughts posed through the film; it rings true to universal fears that humans have about change and struggle. It’s an overwhelming experience to see how man and dog have magnetic pulls on one another, but the journey to get to that place of trust, isn’t as easy as giving a dog a bite of a “Puppy Snap.” Anderson has never shied away from showing his characters with complete candor; luckily for us, audience’s laughter usually ensues.

A young boy searches for his lost dog alongside a pack of strays in Wes Anderson’s ‘ISLE OF DOGS.’ Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

As wonderful as FANTASTIC MR. FOX is, and will continue to be, ISLE OF DOGS is a step forward for the director. There is a technical complexity at work here; perhaps he and his vast team of animators honed his skills in the near decade since the release of his venture into stop-motion. Overhead camera shots, to the way cinematographer Tristan Oliver shoots down the snouts of the canines, is astounding.

Most will remember the endless amount of quirk from the Duke, the chatty dog that loves gossip, or Oracle (Tilda Swinton), the dog who can understand TV, but underneath is a film that questions authority and embraces the imperfections in us all.

Anderson’s filmography has spanned the world from Europe, to India and all the way over to Houston, TX. So it’s no surprise that this story would take place in Japan of all places. Choosing only to have the Japanese language be interpreted through a translator (voiced by Frances McDormand), they are hardly given a voice, which has been a problem and been flagged for cultural appropriation. Anderson has been appropriating a rather cosmopolitan style of filmmaking. He has been taking inspiration from art from all over the world. He even uses a piece of the musical score from Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURI, which leads to reason that he is more of a nostalgic fanboy.

ISLE OF DOGS is cute, cuddly and a piece of animation that challenges the audience’s thinking and celebrates in moments of triumph. Like our friend Chief, we can bite at any time, but a puppy snap and a pat on the head is much more rewarding.

Grade: A

ISLE OF DOGS opens Wednesday nationwide.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.