FILM REVIEW: Wes Anderson’s animated 'Isle of Dogs' a finely crafted creation

Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs

It's almost too perfect. Wes Anderson, a filmmaker of very specific muses, has found, with venerable stop-motion animation, a way to fully realize his vision under the guise of an advanced sort of kids' movie -- if that kid were self-aware, culturally inclined, open-minded, and revering of Anderson's distinct aesthetic choices.

In a way, all of Anderson's films, with minor tweaking, could be considered kids movies. Even his debut, 1996's Bottle Rocket, is really just a simple love story between two best friends. They all come out of the same pure spring of innocence and earnestness, even if the films tweak that earnestness to achieve their friction points.

Isle of Dogs

88 Cast: Voices of Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Anjelica Huston

Director: Wes Anderson

Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and some violent images

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Bring your own dog

Little Rock's Riverdale 10, 2600 Cantrell Road, is holding a special, one-time "Bring Your Own Dog" screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs on April 16 at 7:35 p.m. Dogs are invited (though not required) and will require a ticket (as will their owners). Overly aggressive or uncontrollable dogs will be asked to leave.

Tickets and more information can be found at

His ninth film, Isle of Dogs, co-written with frequent collaborator Roman Coppola, is an adorably sweet homage to the canine. Freed at last from the confines of anything remotely resembling reality, Anderson and his ace production team, under the watchful eye of cinematographer Tristan Oliver, have produced a film of stunning beauty, even if its somewhat confusing mishmash of potential political messaging threatens to sweep it into virtually uncharted territory for an Anderson picture.

When the evil Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) hatches his scheme to remove all dogs from the city -- justifying his actions upon the sudden and inexplicable rise of "Snout Flu" that has become rampant overnight -- he uses his own family pet, Spots (Liev Schreiber), the sworn bodyguard of Kobayahsi's orphaned nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), as the initial victim of banishment. Over the ensuing months, as more and more innocent dogs are rounded up and hauled over the tramway to the distant trash island, packs of the beasts gather up together and brawl for literal table scraps and refuse piles.

One such pack includes our canine heroes, Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent leader, a proudly stray mutt before his internment; Rex (Edward Norton), like the others, a once beloved family pet, still instilled with a desire to please his master; King (Bob Balaban), a former canine actor; Boss (Bill Murray), a sport-loving pooch who wears a heavily worn game jersey; and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a somewhat nervous dog, who keeps his ear to the local gossip mill. When young Atari crash-lands his small plane on a garbage heap near them in order to find his beloved Spots, the dogs agree to help him find the lost pooch, roaming the wilds of the bedraggled island, including the section at the farthest tip, where it is said a pack of marauding cannibal dogs, formerly caged up for inhumane experiments by humans, prowls the grounds.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, a group of high school students, lead by hard-charging exchange student from Ohio Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), form an investigative collective, trying to get to the bottom of the mayor's evil scheme, which even goes so far as to poison the scientist who successfully creates a serum that would cure the dogs, all before the mayor's final step, releasing a bunch of nearly indestructible mechanical hounds on the island to kill all the remaining dogs and forever be done with the species.

The film is filled with precious moments: Anderson has many scenes of the dogs looking directly into the camera silently, a trick of direct, non-verbal address that any dog owner in the world would instantly recognize; and strangely beautiful imagery -- overhead shots that take on the precise geometry of a painting, a sequence involving the preparation of an evening meal shot from overhead that captures the exacting artfulness the Japanese have bestowed upon even the most mundane of tasks -- such that it is nearly impossible not to be taken in by it. Even as a simple fable, it succeeds as another of Anderson's impeccable visual confections.

Only, here his finely crafted creation strongly hints of deeper political inclinations: A cruel and illegal refugee camp perpetuated by a completely dishonorable demagogue and his brainless minions; a revolt lead by a group of students when the adults around them seem helpless to his machinations; a sly commentary on the callous inhumanity with which we treat even those creatures whose only desire is to please us, and so forth. Animated films famously take a long time to create, so topical news connections are pretty much off the table (despite the age of the students who lead this revolt, the tie-in to the current Parkland, Fla., kids is assuredly coincidental), but it's still hard to read this as apolitical, given the current climate of anti-immigration/pro-deportation fervor that has terrorized many of this country's inhabitants.

True to his aesthetic nature, Anderson isn't interested in making overt politicized statements -- this is no Animal Farm -- or even entirely recognizable ones: It is certainly possible to see the film as a simple moral mythos, a children's story conceit that isn't designed to break through its smooth surface into the churning political turmoil that may lie underneath; but, regardless, its considerable emotional heft remains. Even if you aren't canine-inclined, it would still be difficult to completely eradicate the image of those pitiful, big-eyed dogs, living on literal garbage heaps, eating trash, forced to sleep in the wild, hoping above all other things to get reclaimed by their erstwhile masters and be allowed to come back home.


Proud stray Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) and family pet Rex (Edward Norton) are banished to a garbage-strewn island off the coast of Japan in Wes Anderson’s fable Isle of Dogs.


Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) is a proudly anti-human canine until he encounters the bereaved Atari (Koyu Rankin) who’s looking for his missing pet in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

MovieStyle on 04/13/2018

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