Mark Reviews Movies

Isle of Dogs


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: The 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, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some violent images)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 3/23/18 (limited); 3/28/18 (wider); 4/6/18 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 28, 2018

Politics is vital to the story of Isle of Dogs, director Wes Anderson's second stop-motion animation film. It's a tale of the consequences of rampant fear of the outsider, filtered through the lens of a dystopian future, filled with an abundance of jokes, and set against the meticulously crafted worlds of an island of garbage and the pristine order of an engineered metropolis.

This may look like a kids' movie, with its shaggy protagonists and its storybook-like storytelling (with Courtney B. Vance providing the stern, unamused narration), but it's far from that. This is an oppressive and inherently violent world, set 20 years in the future, where former canine pets have been transported to a remote island that has been so ravaged by natural disasters that it has become a massive trash heap in the middle of the sea.

Some years after the forced relocation, the dogs have to fight each other for whatever food they can find. There are rumors of an indigenous clan of canines, who survived cruel testing at a science facility, only to be stranded and turn to cannibalism in order to survive. It's almost certain that if the mayor of the city is re-elected, he will enact a plan to euthanize every dog on the island, even though the animals pose no threat, don't cost the city money any longer, and were, at one point, loved by a certain segment of the population. As for the mayor's chances of maintaining his office, the results will be announced on "Re-election Night."

Anderson's screenplay is a fairly transparent statement about the politics of fear, propaganda, corruption, and dehumanization (Even though the main characters are animals, the last point still remains). That's the premise, at least. The execution of this story, though, avoids anger and resentment against such a system (A dead-end character of an American exchange student-turned-activist, voiced by Greta Gerwig, provides that angle to little narrative or thematic effect).

The film's concerns are primarily emotional ones, focused on the toll that being targeted by these political forces takes on the victims. It's an allegory, of course, but it's one in such a way that the film tells a good story first. The message is only just below that, but it is, nonetheless, secondary.

The setting is the island and the nearby metropolis of Megasaki City, located somewhere on the coast of the Japanese archipelago (By the by, the film uses the location without much concern for specificity, as if Anderson simply chose it to give the film an "exotic" look and feel). Mayor Kobayashi (voice of Kunichi Nomura), who—as we learn in the prologue—comes from a long line of dog-hating and cat-loving ancestors, has enacted a quarantine of the city's dog population after an outbreak of dog flu, citing worry that it could spread to humans. The dogs are transported to Trash Island, while Kobayashi uses a lot of underhanded tactics to keep his opposition from helping the dogs or changing the citizenry's minds.

On the island, a pack of dogs—led by Rex (voice of Edward Norton) and made up of King (voice of Bob Balaban), Boss (voice of Bill Murray), and Duke (voice of Jeff Goldblum)—and an outsider named Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) spot a small plane as it crashes. The pilot is a 12-year-old orphaned boy named Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin), Kobayashi's distant nephew and ward, who has come to Trash Island to find his beloved guard dog Spots (voice of Liev Schreiber). Save for Chief, who has never had or ever wanted a master, the dogs sympathize with Atari and admire the boy for being the only human who has tried to rescue a dog. They decide to help.

It's a fairly straightforward adventure, as the boy and his new canine friends make their way across the ravages of what used to be civilization. There's a montage of the group walking against changing backdrops of failed industry—for instance, a row of nuclear power plants and an abandoned mineral mine. Everything on the island is waste, from bags of maggot-infested food to piles of glass and plastic bottles, and in this brief moment, we're left to ponder the waste of human adaptation. Anderson and his design crew have put as much work into creating the makeshift realm of the island as they have into the expressive natures of their character puppets—which is to say that a lot of work is on display here.

Despite its whimsical story and its consistent—as well as consistently dry—humor, the whole film is centered on such moments of remorse—for what has passed and for how the future is being shaped. It's a story of mourning for what has become of the world, as the dogs get into scraps over scraps and, in the case of former show dog Nutmeg (voice of Scarlett Johansson), explain how unfair it would be to bring puppies into this world. These are wounded characters, uneasy with the past (Chief eventually tells the story of how he was once adopted by a family and ruined the opportunity for a comfortable life out of instinctual fear) and uncertain of their future.

That Anderson can cull such despair from such fanciful material is impressive. It might be even more impressive that he's able to find and maintain the humor within this depressing vision of an inhumane political landscape. That Isle of Dogs gives us the children's story resolution of hope and optimism in the face of such misery is an appreciated act of kindness.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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