ISLE OF DOGS review by Rahul Vedantam – Wes Anderson delivers a beautifully animated tale

ISLE OF DOGS review by Rahul Vedantam – Wes Anderson delivers a beautifully animated tale

ISLE OF DOGS is, surprisingly enough, a movie about dogs. Amongst the beautiful stop-motion animation, quirky Wes Anderson directing, and fantastic voice work, the story about a 12-year-old boy who travels to an island filled with canines to reunite with his lost dog stands tallest. Do not let the PG-13 rating fool you, this is a movie about man’s best friend, and has the romanticism of a children’s storybook tale. It might be the cutest movie I’ve ever seen, and I can’t say that with enough praise.

While the big names of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson and Jeff Goldblum are far from absent, they mainly play comedic roles that offer more info about the two leads – Bryan Cranston as Chief, and Leiv Schreiber as Spots. Cranston’s Chief is a stray dog, and member of a group of alphas that find Atari, the young nephew of the tyrannical Mayor Kobayashi that started the ban on dogs who has come to find his long-lost dog Spots. The trope of a gruff, unfriendly powerful creature slowly warming up to a pure-hearted protagonist is not groundbreaking but works well due to the storybook nature of the film. Cranston lets the inner turmoil be heard and has a monologue that leaves you heartbroken. He is far and away the dominant voice to be heard throughout the film.

Let the huge Bill Murray and Edward Norton fans not be mistaken about how much of their favorite Wes Anderson natives they will be getting, but it is not missed when not used. Every joke in the film lands, so as to fill the hole of a higher volume shooting movie. There are standard Wes Anderson colorful landscapes and lists explained through picture, framed images, narration and text lining the screen anytime a new segment is introduced, but the animation makes it flow more smoothly than any Anderson film before. These are less quirky techniques and more parts of the world we are watching.

All of this takes a backseat to the stop motion work however, it really is the star of the film, and small montages take place whose sole purpose of showcasing its brilliance, but that is not a knock. Those sequences never overstay their welcome and are in fact greatly appreciated in how well they accomplish their goal. Whether it is the full sequence of a kidney transplant, or a random sumo wrestling match, or the preparation of sushi, each sequence contains detail only to be compared fairly with the famous FRESH GUACAMOLE short film by PES. The production is beautiful, and the use of non-subtitled Japanese during human conversation is a clever way to force us to pay more attention as we look harder, wanting to know what is being said. The landscapes are beautiful and constantly changing, the limitations stop motion animation’s resources demand clearly never being a concern for Wes Anderson. It is hard to understate how much character the film has in its visuals.

To address the controversy of the film, much has been said about the use of Japan as a staging ground for this adventure. From a plot perspective it is wholly unnecessary, and Japan’s culture is reduced to a dog’s eye view. All I can say to this is that nothing in the film is disrespectful, and I can’t imagine the production without its wonderful Japanese score, beautiful red color theme that dominates most scenes, and foreign language separating the dogs and humans’ ability to communicate. If I had to pick a reason it was done, it would be the added air of exoticism and adventure the unfamiliar Japanese culture adds to the film. It is a cartoony Wes Anderson world, and the English-speaking dogs need somewhere to adventure through a la Alice in Wonderland. Whether or not this treatment of a foreign culture is fair is your decision to make, but I can only reiterate that in this critic’s opinion nothing is done disrespectfully to create a spirited away story. And the childlike tale of adventure to save a group of lovable dogs is perfectly accented by the beautiful animation to bring one of my favorite films of the year so far.

ISLE OF DOGS opens in select theaters March 28, 2018 – everywhere April 6th

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