Review: Isle of Dogs

Score: B+

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rated: PG-13

The specter of death looms large over Isle of Dogs, even more so than 101 Dalmatians or Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. While it’s obvious that Wes Anderson and his collaborators love adorable doggos, it doesn’t have any problems showing you the corpse of a dog (or a human for that matter). Yes, this is an animated movie about a group of pups and a 12-year-old boy going on an adventure, but it is most certainly not for kids.

Set in a fictional province of Japan in the future, a corrupt mayor (co-writer Kunichi Nomura) has shipped all dogs off to a toxic landfill called Trash Island, where they’re forced to fend off scraps and whatever garbage continues to be dumped there. The pretext is that the dogs are carrying “snout fever,” which can become “dog flu” in humans. (There’s an allegory here that Anderson isn’t really interested in exploring, which is probably for the best.)

Our band of alpha dogs – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) – more or less rule the island, or at least are left alone by the other mutts. When Atari (Koyu Rankin) crashes his plane on the island in search of his faithful companion Spots (Liev Schreiber), everyone but Chief is excited to help.

The mission on the island plays out as expected, with Chief warming up to young Atari, and peril threatening our very good boys at every turn. But back in Megasaki, there’s a whole lot going on that feels like a different movie. There’s murder, corruption and a foreign exchange student (Greta Gerwig) out to uncover the truth. And this is where it becomes clear that while the movie may not be insensitive to Japanese culture, there’s absolutely no reason to tell this story in this place. It could just as easily be Finland or Greece or the coast of California.

Isle of Dogs, like all of Anderson’s films, is meticulously crafted, well-acted and often hilarious. This is his second foray into animation, but unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s a lot shaggier and less focused. I certainly wouldn’t call it slow, but it’s missing the zip that his Roald Dahl adaptation had.

The film has some great gags, including a recurring bit where all the animals are wowed by Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who can “see the future,” but really just understands what she sees on the news. There’s plenty of Anderson’s trademark handmade quirkiness and the animation is often stunning. And in some ways, this is both his sweetest and darkest movie. (He’s had villains before, but none so evil they would hatch a plan to gas every single remaining dog.) Isle of Dogs is a delight as usual, but not on the next level of his best work.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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