ISLE OF DOGS, Wes Anderson’s latest entry in the stop-motion animation genre, is a fantastic adventure that has made its way onto my list of favorite animated films released in recent years. Now, before you roll your eyes and accuse me of being another hip 28 year old who worships the ground Mr. Anderson walks upon, I must tell you that this is the first time I have ever enjoyed one of his films from start to finish. While I can appreciate the beauty his films exude in symmetrical frame after symmetrical frame, I do not consider myself a fan of his in the slightest. But this time I was hooked.
Taking place in the near future in the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, ISLE OF DOGS is the story of 12 year old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and his journey to find his bodyguard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Dog flu has infected all of the canines in Megasaki, and cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Kobayashi), who also happens to be Atari’s uncle, banishes the infected species to Trash Island, a floating junkyard off the coast of Megasaki. Atari crash lands on Trash Island and comes across a pack of has been alpha dogs who have banded together for survival. The rag tag team is made up of Rex (Edward Norton), the decisive self-proclaimed leader of the pack, Boss (Bill Murray), a cheerful dog who was once a little league baseball mascot, Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gossip-lover who always knows and spreads the latest rumors, King (Bob Balaban), a former spokesdog for Doggy Chop dog food, and Chief (Bryan Cranston), a rough around the edges stray who has a heart buried deep, deep, deep down inside. Atari and the pack set forth to look for Spots and end up going on a life-changing adventure.
While the entire all-star cast dazzles there were a few performances that stood out to me. Harvey Keitel’s turn as Gondo, the head of a pack of aboriginal Trash Island mutts, is classic Keitel. Though he’s not afforded much screen time, his commanding presence leaves a paw-print on the viewer’s funny bone. Jeff Goldblum’s performance of Duke provides the audience with comic relief while simultaneously advancing the story with plot points disguised as the latest rumor he cannot wait to share. But it is Bryan Cranston who shines most on Trash Island. He gives dimension and heart to what could have been a disappointing hero. Fun cameos from Tilda Swinton as Oracle, a dog who can “see the future” because she understands television, and Yoko Ono as Assistant Scientist Yoko-Ono also bring another layer of charm to the film.
The film’s charm is solidified in the animation style. Stop-motion is an intense labor of love, and the filmmaker’s love for the art is very apparent. From the beautifully constructed sets to the conscious choice of using stretched out cotton balls for a smoke effect instead of resorting to CGI, every decision was very clearly made to craft a unique and memorable world for the viewer to enjoy. The score, composed by Oscar-winning genius Alexandre Desplat combines traditional Japanese taiko drum beats with contemporary horn sections, creating a bizarre musical backdrop that surprisingly works very well.
The film also displays many societal elements that are present in our world today; political corruption, xenophobia, hidden agendas, and the abandonment of groups and individuals who need help more than anything are all themes presented to the viewer. While Anderson notes their existence, this film is definitely not a politically charged think piece.
ISLE OF DOGS is a quirky, heart-warming adventure that will make you leave the theater smiling. I definitely recommend grabbing your favorite movie buddy and heading out to a screening. It is not to be missed.
ISLE OF DOGS will be released in limited markets on Friday March 23rd. For theater and show time information visit www.isleofdogsmovie.com.