isle of dogs spoiler review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.)

With Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson returns to the magical world of stop-motion for the first time since Fantastic Mr. Fox. The results are frustrating. On one hand, Anderson has crafted a genuinely emotional, frequently funny adventure focused on man’s best friend. On another hand, Anderson has, for some inexplicable reason, decided to use the film to turn Japanese culture into a punchline.

No Future On Trash Island

In the not-too-distant-future, a sudden outbreak of dog flu has put a large population of Japan’s dogs on the chopping block. Megasaki’s Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a solution – banish all dogs to Trash Island. Anti-dog sentiment runs rampant, and soon all the puppers are hauled off to live among the mountains of waste, with the presumption that they’ll die out. But the dogs survive, and form their own packs.

One such pack consists of former house pets – Rex (Edward Norton), former dog food commercial star King (Bob Balaban), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray) and the gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Also in the pack (sort of): Chief (Bryan Cranston), a gruff stray who is prone to biting humans who dare to attempt to pet him.

This pack, and hundreds of other dogs, have been scraping out a rough existence on Trash Island for six months when a human drops in out of the blue – literally. A small plane crashes on the island, flown by young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari is the adopted nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, and has come in search of his dog and bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The pack agrees to help Atari search Trash Island for Spots, with Chief begrudgingly coming along. Throughout the journey, Chief’s icy heart begins to thaw a bit as he grows closer to Atari.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kobayashi and his corrupt administration are hatching a plan to exterminate the dogs. Kobayashi comes from a long-line of cat lovers, and it was actually Kobayashi and his goons who infected all the dogs with dog flu. A group of student activists, lead by exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) have caught on to Kobayashi’s plan, and are racing against the clock to save the pups.

Lessons are learned, tears are shed, and we get to spend a good amount of time with some very good dogs.

isle of dogs review

They’re Good Dogs: What Works

Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is a visual wonder. In fact, it’s an even bigger technical achievement than Mr. Fox, which was set in a rural, and frequently empty, setting. Here, Anderson’s team of stop-motion animators have crafted a several huge, expansive settings – from the futuristic cityscape of Megasaki to the ever-shifting landscape of Trash Island. Every moment of the film features stunning visuals – rolling seas that sparkle like diamonds; billowing tall grass on an abandoned golf course; a dog drop-off point overflowing with empty cages. There’s one scene set within an igloo constructed of lit, multi-colored sake bottles that’s breathtaking to behold. 

And then there are the dogs themselves, each with their own unique visual traits. Like Mr. Fox, and like the Rankin/Bass stop-motion movies of yesterday, the fur on the dogs is almost always moving; bristling, be it in a breeze or from the touch of an animator. It’s almost hypnotic – you can get lost in all that ruffling fur.

The animation is more fluid here than in Mr. Fox, which often featured movements that felt jerky and haphazard. Yet the animation alone isn’t what brings these dogs to life. The voice work, handled by mostly Anderson mainstays and a few new additions, is stellar across the board. Bryan Cranston in particular gives one of the very best performances of his career (I’m serious!) as the rough, standoffish Chief. Chief does not care for humans, yet slowly comes around to appreciating Atari. Cranston sells this slow change in the character perfectly – it never seems abrupt or forced. There’s a heartfelt amount of emotion in the way Cranston delivers certain lines, such as a tear-inducing story about the one disastrous time he was adopted by a family of humans. They don’t give out big time award nominations for voice work, but if they did, Cranston would be a shoo-in for the performance he gives here. I sincerely hope Anderson works with him again – in live-action.

The rest of the dog pack handles themselves nicely as well. Edward Norton is bossy and smarmy, in just the right way, as the default leader Rex. Bill Murray’s Chief doesn’t have as much to do, but the actor still conveys the same droll Bill Murray charm that he’s patented for decades. Bob Balaban is just the right mix of nervous and pensive as King. And Jeff Goldblum is at his Jeff Goldblumiest as Duke, a dog who loves gossip and frequent begins conversations with, “Did you hear about…?”

While Isle of Dogs is very much a Wes Anderson movie, it often signifies an evolution in how Anderson tells a story. There are more quiet moments here than in previous films; even the soundtrack, which features a killer score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, goes light on the pop music that pepper Anderson’s other films. Anderson gets a lot of guff – sometimes deservedly so – for what can be seen as his twee-ness, but when he wants to hit a very specific emotional beat, he usually nails it.

Think of how blunt and simple, and yet how effective, Ben Stiller’s line, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” comes across at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. Such a fact-of-the-matter utterance shouldn’t connect as well as it does – and yet…it does. The same can be said for several moments in Isle of Dogs. When Atari first meets Spots, Anderson stages a scene where the boy and the dog begin communicating with each other via a special headset. Atari is whispering something we can’t really hear, but the camera goes in tight on Spot’s face, and the dog keeps saying, “I can hear you,” over and over again, as tears well up in his eyes. It’s almost overwhelmingly emotional in its simplicity.

Another simple moment that somehow destroyed me, emotionally: Chief takes a fancy to another dog on the island – a former showdog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). She asks Chief if he’ll help Atari on his quest to find Spots. “Why should I?” Chief asks. “Because he’s a twelve year old boy,” Nutmeg replies. “Dogs love those.” Here, Anderson holds for a beat of silence, and in that silence there’s some sort of unspoken, beautiful truth that punched me in the gut.

The same goes for a scene near the end of the film, where Spots transfers his duties as Atari’s bodyguard over to Chief, and Chief – who has spent nearly the entire film talking about how much he hates humans – accepts the job. These moments, coupled with bursts of humor – a recurring gag involves a pug (voiced by Tilda Swinton) the other dogs see as psychic, when in fact she gets all her psychic visions from watching TV, is consistently hilarious – make Isle of Dogs sincerely effective.

And yet…

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net