Movie Review: Wes Anderson finds grim, moving whimsy on “Isle of Dogs”


“Isle of Dogs” is the stuff of Wes Anderson’s nightmares.

Anderson’s made a Japanese epic as viewed through the twee lens in which he sees the world. A dark, daft vision of a culture that’s Turned its Back on Dog, it’s easily the most inspired, dazzling and original use of stop motion animation ever.

Is it for children? How about “Take that PG-13 rating seriously,” and read on before you decide.

A prologue tells of us ancient animus between a Japanese clan and dogs. In the near future, that Kobayashi clan sees its moment for revenge. An outbreak of dog flu and assorted illnesses cause Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki to order all dogs dumped offshore, on Trash Island. There, they’re left to fend for themselves, eat garbage and die of neglect.

To set an example, the mayor nobly makes the guard dog he’s given to his ward, Atari, the first canine exiled to the “Isle of Dogs.”


Months later, that boy (voiced by Koyu Rankin) shows up on the island, looking for “Spots,” his beloved guardian and pet. The pack of “scary indestructible alpha dogs” led by the reasonable Rex (Edward Norton) but held together by the tough street stray Chief (Bryan Cranston, perfect) debate helping him, despite the language barrier. The kid speaks generally untranslated Japanese. The dogs? English, of course.

“Are we eating him, or is this a ‘rescue?‘” Boss (Bill Murray) wants to know.

“Rescue” it is. Anderson, working from a story he cooked up with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Japanese actor/DJ Kunichi Nomura, conjures up a grimly whimsical quest about doomed dogs. All of them look worn, injured and uncared for. And all of them devote themselves to a 12 year-old boy from a race that has forsaken them. They help him look for the one member of their canine community who still has a human who misses him.

As onetime showdog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) reminds them, “He’s a 12 year-old boy. Dogs love those.”

Say the title, “Isle of Dogs,” three times fast — aloud. You get it.

The animation is a highly-textured, fanatically-detailed delight, a more exacting looking film than Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Stitches on injuries, gruesomely explicit surgery, anatomically-perfect dog skeletons (not every dog could survive this), puppy and human puppet eyes that well up with tears, all provide a backdrop to Anderson’s deliciously deadpan dialogue, running gags and sight gags.

As in all of his films, he creates a family. Here, there are two, with one consisting of pro-dog teen resisters (led by “exchange student” Tracy–Greta Gerwig) back in Megasaki, trying to figure out why the dogs were exiled. Cameos by Ken Watanabe and Yoko Ono deepen the mystery.

The sense of place is every bit as vivid here as the fantasy pre-War Europe Anderson created for “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Anderson achieves this not just with large swatches of untranslated Japanese debate (easily deciphered by the visuals), but with thunderous taiko drums and drummers underscoring sumo wrestling, Noh theater interpretations of the back-story and current story, “Hello Kitty” visual puns and haiku, which many a character whips out to explain his or her actions and motivations in just three lines of just seventeen syllables.

“I turn my back…”

“On ManKind!”

“Frost on a window pane!”

It’s clever to the edge of brilliant, and damned funny, start to finish.

But for all the sentimental stuff about dogs, all the DIY delights of animation using cotton balls to simulate clouds of dust kicked up by a fight, or pulled apart to show thin strands simulating fog or vapors escaping from a test tube, is this complex, sometimes grisly and downbeat conspiracy dramedy for kids?

Yes, but only in the sense that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was. When it comes to children’s stories, nobody was darker than Roald Dahl. But Roald Dahl never met Wes Anderson, a storyteller who found humor in European assassinations in “Grand Budapest” and in animal neglect and animal testing on his “Isle of Dogs.”

Just be glad he chose Japan as his setting, and not China. They eat dogs over there.


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

Cast: The voices of Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Kunichi NomuraJeff Goldblum, Ken Watanabe, Yoko Ono, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham with Courtney B. Vance as The Narrator

Credits:Written and directed by Wes Anderson. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:41

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