Hey, hey, an animated stop-motion movie that isn’t Laika or Aardmann! And it’s about talking dogs! I can get behind this. The company behind this flick is American Empirical Pictures, a company that director Wes Anderson created, who previously created FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), which I hear good things about. The trend seems to continue as this flick is getting pretty high marks before its release.
The story looks like it takes place in a future, dystopian Japan where dogs are banned to an island of garbage, for some reason, and a little boy travels to the island to search for his dog with the help of other dogs that he encounters.
Here’s the extensive cast. Starring, we have Bryan Cranston (LAST FLAG FLYING , LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE , and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN ), Koyu Rankin (feature film debut; congrats, young man), Edward Norton (COLLATERAL BEAUTY , THE INCREDIBLE HULK , FIGHT CLUB , and the upcoming MOTHERLESS ), Bill Murray (GHOSTBUSTERS , ZOMBIELAND , SPACE JAM , and GHOSTBUSTERS ), and Jeff Goldblum (THOR: RAGNAROK , THE LIFE OF STEVE ZISSOU , INDEPENDENCE DAY , ANNIE HALL , and upcoming films JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM  and HOTEL ARTEMIS ). In support, we have Greta Gerwig (20TH CENTURY WOMEN , JACKIE , and the upcoming untitled Noah Baumbach project  and BERGMAN ISLAND ), Frances McDormand (THREE BILLBOARDS , THE GOOD DINOSAUR , BURN AFTER READING , and FARGO ), Scarlett Johansson (ROUGH NIGHT , AVENGERS: ULTRON , THE PRESTIGE , HOME ALONE 3 , and upcoming films AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR  and Noah Baumbach’s project), Harvey Keitel (THE COMEDIAN , NATIONAL TREASURE , RESERVOIR DOGS , TAXI DRIVER , and upcoming films THE LAST MAN  and FATIMA ), and F. Murray Abraham (GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL , THIR13EN GHOSTS , LAST ACTION HERO , AMADEUS , and the upcoming HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 ).
Now for the crew. Writing and directing is Wes Anderson, known for GRAND BUDAPEST, STEVE ZISSOU, and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat, known for SHAPE OF WATER (2017), AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016), DANISH GIRL (2015), and upcoming films OPERATION FINALE (2018) and KURSK (2018). The cinematographer is Tristan Oliver, known for LOVING VINCENT (2017), PARANORMAN (2012), and THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005). Finally, the film has a grand total of three editors: Edward Bursch (short films), Ralph Foster (MR. FOX), Andrew Weisblum (MOTHER! , ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS , and THE WRESTLER ).
Overall, this looks really different from other stop-motion films. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a comedy, which is a bold choice for something that’s likely aimed at kids. I’m not sure what to feel about the story, if it’s going to be a little too complex. I mean, the story is essentially this boy who is looking for his dog. So around this concept is a world that is dystopic, Japanese laws are put forth to banish all dogs to this trash island… I don’t know, this might be the one aspect that I may not like. But we’ll see. I’m getting ready to jump.
This is my honest opinion of: ISLE OF DOGS
Set in the future. In Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) comes from a long royal family of dog-haters. When a pandemic of dog flu ravages the city, the Mayor issues a law that bans all dogs to an island of trash, which is named “The Isle of Dogs.” Years later, a pack of five alpha dogs, lead by the stray Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), witness a small single-man airplane crash, and within it, a twelve-year-old boy named Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin), who is looking for his dog, Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the very first dog to be banished to the island, who used to be Atari’s personal guard dog, as Atari is also the Mayor’s nephew. While Chief is apathetic toward Atari’s plight, his four companions Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), and King (voiced by Bob Balaban), decide to help the boy find his long-lost friend.
This was awesome, but bare in mind that just because it’s an animated film, it’s not necessarily for kids. It’s PG-13. I honestly didn’t know that going in. I didn’t pay attention. I was more distracted by how impressively animated it was and how many actors were stapled to the project that the movie’s rating wasn’t on my mind.
So what’s in the movie that may not be suitable for kids? Nothing too bad. There’s not a whole lot of cursing, that I noticed anyway, but there is a kidney transplant scene where you actually see the inside of a person and the kidney itself get put into the other person. And there are scenes where dogs are designed like the kind of animals that have been tested on that look diseased, no fur, scars, physical deformations, stuff like that. As far as violence concerned, you do see Atari rip out metal chords out of his head that have been lodged in there and blood does spurt out. So certainly there is some blood and painful imagery, but the violence regarding fight scenes are non-existent.
Speaking of fight scenes, let’s talk about some of the choices made in this movie that I really enjoyed. For one thing, the film is beautifully animated to look at, no matter which style it chooses. Yeah, there’s two types of animation in this movie, the stop-motion figures themselves, and hand-drawn. Basically, whenever there’s a camera relaying imagery to a computer, or television, the animation on the screen is hand-drawn animation and it perfectly captures the exact textures of the figures and their motions, which never got old to watch. Also, there’s quite a bit of old-school animated choices here too. Like the puffs of white clouds when characters are beating the crap out of each other like in Looney Tunes? It’s done so insanely well. The use of cotton? Pure genius. In fact, the cotton is used cleverly for a few moments in the movie, like mushroom clouds from an explosion. I’ll say it again, pure genius.
This movie isn’t a straight comedy. I actually wouldn’t know how to classify it. It has elements of comedy and drama, which should obviously make it a dramedy. But that doesn’t feel right either because there are quite a few straight-forward jokes. Like, there’s this pug named Oracle (voiced by Tilda Swinton), who has “visions,” but it’s cleverly revealed her visions are just from understanding television and the news. Get it? Visions? Tele…visions? I thought that was incredibly funny. But there is dark humor too. Like when Atari crashes on the island and the dogs find him, one of the first questions is, “Are we eating the little pilot?” That was pretty darkly funny too. So there’s elements of all kinds of comedy that really come together, almost making it its own thing.
The story is unlike anything I’ve seen before. While certainly animals traveling with humans has been done before, and even done to death if you really think about it, this is packaged together rather uniquely and is deceptively complex. My summary up top certainly simplifies the story, but there is a surprising amount of politics for a story about a boy just looking for his dog. Like, there’s an entire twenty some-odd years of history of dogs and cats at war, dogs forced to live outside, and then a virus starts spreading, hence the island. But there’s also this group of scientists who want to save the dogs and cure the virus. But then there’s also assassination subplots, student protesters, even undertones of animal cruelty, and it all meshes in a great way that doesn’t talk down to younger audiences, and is easy to follow. As anyone knows about me, politics isn’t my area of expertise and has a high chance of losing me if I try to follow it, but this movie did a great job of keeping the politics simple, relevant, and engaging.
I love how these characters are written. Atari is obviously a smart and resourceful young man, able to steal a small plane and pilot it to the island, and even fix it when it crashes the first time. He’s also not helpless when things get dicey. When drones find him, he’s armed with a slingshot and fires rocks at the cameras, as well as any soldier guys (or whoever they are). While Chief fancies himself the alpha of the alpha pack, Rex is certainly the beta, taking quite a bit of charge from Chief when the situation arises, constantly calling for votes of action to be taken, when Chief barely does that himself. He’s also more compassionate than Chief is. While Chief would sooner leave the Atari alone and do his own thing by himself, Rex is the first and quickest to want to help the boy in any way that they can. And it’s not like Chief is just a cold-hearted dog. Unlike the other alphas, who were once house pets and refer to humans as “masters,” Chief was a stray who has had limited, but negative reactions to being around humans, and even kids.
Bravo to the marketing department and the creator of the trailer for this film because there is actually a staggering amount that the trailer doesn’t give away. We’ve all seen trailers that might as well be ninety second, or two minute versions of the movie they’re advertising, rendering seeing it likely useless, but this trailer is fantastic. Like, you never get a glimpse of Spots’ skeleton in the case, later revealed to be a different dog, nor would you guess that Chief is actually not a black dog, but rather just incredibly dirty.
Having said all this, I do find that I have a few problems with the film.
Why did we need the “Spots is dead” fake-out? Ultimately, this felt like a cheap shot for the story to add a bit of tragedy for no reason. I mean, I can appreciate that the movie doesn’t linger on this subplot for too long. This is especially welcomed after the dog tag is read “Spo-” and cuts off, immediately causing me to think that wasn’t really Spots anyway. So when the next scene comes along and Atari is on his way home in his fixed plane, he crashes again, hearing that it was the wrong dog. So… narratively speaking, why was that necessary? The audience already knows that the story is about Atari looking for Spots, so it just feels like filler.
I also didn’t like how the characters reacted when finally finding Spots. He comes right out and says that things have changed for him. He’s got a mate, he has a litter of puppies on the way, but Chief gets upset, calling Spots selfish after Atari came all this way to look for him. This is really unfair. According to Rex, no human has ever traveled from Megasaki to the island. And since Spots is the first dog banished there, he ought to know that better than most. So when he found his mate and ended up having puppies, he had no idea that Atari would come for him. And despite his crash, and a presumed network of communication between the dogs across the island, Spots is in a far-off territory that none of the other dogs venture to, in fear of the rumors of cannibal dogs. So chances are, even if all the other dogs know of Atari, I doubt Spots and the experimented-on dogs would.
Overall, I really like this film. Wonderful and beautiful animation, a simple, yet complex story, an awesome score, and well-crafted characters. I don’t really agree with the current 8.4/10 rating on IMDb (as of 3/24/2018), as there are a few story and character hitches that I didn’t care for, I still highly recommend this to one and all. Even kids. Just be ready for some graphic stuff. Definitely worth full price at the movies, and even a second viewing, and or the purchase of it on Blu-Ray when the time comes. It’s a really good movie. Humans love those.
My honest rating for ISLE OF DOGS: a strong 4/5
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