Isle of Dogs infuses writer-director Wes Anderson’s signature humor in an offbeat, but still heartwarming story about a boy and his dog(s).
Writer and director Wes Anderson first made a name for himself with his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket. In the two decades since, Anderson has continued to develop his own unique directorial style matched with an offbeat humor that’s all his own. With a number of critical darlings under his belt – including, but not limited to, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel – Anderson now returns to stop-motion for Isle of Dogs. He previously ventured into this territory for his 2009 film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which similarly earned him incredibly positive reviews. Isle of Dogs infuses writer-director Wes Anderson’s signature humor in an offbeat, but still heartwarming story about a boy and his dog(s).
Isle of Dogs takes place in a dystopian future version of Japan, specifically the fictional metropolis of Megasaki, where corrupt Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has ordered all dogs be banished to Trash Island as a result of the rampant Canine Flu plaguing the city. Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), distant nephew of the mayor, ventures to Trash Island in order to track down his personal security dog and best friend, Spots (Liev Schreiber). After crash-landing on the island, Atari is helped by a pack of alpha dogs: leader Rex (Edward Norton), former little league baseball team mascot Boss (Billy Murray), gossiper Duke (Jeff Goldblum), former dog food spokesman King (Bob Balaban), and stray Chief (Bryan Cranston). With the aid of fellow Trash Island dogs Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham), and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), the pack sets off with Atari to find Spots.
Meanwhile back in Megasaki, pro-dog activist and student newspaper reporter Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) works to expose the nefarious plot of Mayor Kobayashi. To do so, she follows the work of Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), the Science-Party Candidate running against Kobayashi who is working on a cure for the Canine Flu and Snout Fever that resulted in all the dogs being banished. However, when Tracy faces certain major setbacks in her investigation, she’ll need to discover a new way to save the dogs of Trash Island. Plus, as Atari flees from his uncle’s men who would bring him home without Spots, he’ll need to rely on an unlikely ally in order to complete his mission of finding his dog.
Keeping up with his career so far as an auteur, Anderson wrote and directed Isle of Dogs, based on a story he created with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. The plot of Isle of Dogs is at times a bit overcomplicated, but has strong roots in the classic tale of a boy and his dog. Of course, what makes Anderson’s film so unique is the dystopian future setting and using stop-motion to temper the more bleak aspects of the Isle of Dogs premise. Stray and former pet dogs relegated to an island full of trash would have been grim – at best – in live-action, but takes on a quirky tone with the help of the medium and Anderson’s dry wit. The additional storyline concerning political corruption is woven wonderfully into the main throughline of Atari’s search for his dog, offering a great deal of depth to the film, though it will be enjoyed much more by adults than younger viewers.
Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion movie not necessarily geared toward or made with young viewers in mind. Children may no doubt be interested by the premise of a 12-year-old boy searching for his dog, and the young protagonists offer an entry point for kid viewers. However, Anderson’s humor doesn’t naturally lend itself to entertaining younger viewers; while there are moments and characters, namely Atari and Tracy, that they could connect with – especially if they have pets of their own – Isle of Dogs is undoubtedly a more mature story and will be enjoyed much more by older viewers. Still, with the help of the nostalgia inherently infused within any story about a child and their dog, Isle of Dogs elevates that premise with a charming and heartwarming tale that will appeal to the child within all adult viewers.
Further elevating the story of Isle of Dogs is the richness of the world Anderson has created. There is a great deal of detail the director put into not only the stop-motion characters – which come to life wonderfully – but in the extensive history of Megasaki. It’s in these abundant details and fictional historical facts that viewers may get lost at times, especially as the film often speeds through them quickly, but they offer a depth to the world of Isle of Dogs that helps to bring the movie to life. Many of the main characters, both dog and human alike, have well developed backgrounds that are established and expanded upon throughout the film, informing each of their character beats. For their parts, the voice cast for Isle of Dogs are well suited to their characters and help to bring a great deal of charm to the story.
With that said, the three main female characters in Isle of Dogs – Tracy, Nutmeg, and Assistant-Scientist Yoko-Ono (Yoko Ono) – are woefully underdeveloped and rely heavily on cliché film tropes. Tracy arguably suffers from her character playing out a storyline centering her as a white savior, Nutmeg’s main characteristic is that she’s a show dog (read: pretty), and Yoko-Ono really only exists to help move the plot forward. It’s unclear if Oracle is a female dog, though the character is voiced by Swinton, but the canine has little depth beyond sort of mystical powers. While there are a number of well-developed and compelling characters in Isle of Dogs, the female characters, for the most part, are neither.
All in all, Isle of Dogs is another successful venture into stop-motion for Anderson as he brings his signature style to a quirky and heartwarming story that’s sure to delight all his fans. Isle of Dogs may additionally win over moviegoers who haven’t been enamored by the auteur’s work in the past, with some help from the film’s charming storyline about man’s best friend. Though the offbeat humor in Isle of Dogs, typical for an Anderson picture, may not appeal to everyone, fans of his style will no doubt find themselves laughing throughout the film’s adventure. Overall, Isle of Dogs has its problems, but it’s sure to be another hit for Anderson.
Isle of Dogs is now playing in a limited theatrical release and will expand to more theaters over the weeks ahead. It runs 101 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.
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