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“Isle of Dogs:” A Loving Tribute to Man’s Best Friend

I usually go into a film with a pretty solid idea of whether or not said film will make me cry. From my very first viewing of the teaser trailer for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated feature, “Isle of Dogs,” I knew that there was no way I was leaving the theater with dry eyes. “Isle of Dogs” delivered on that hunch and offered so much more.

Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson | Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

“Isle of Dogs” marks the second animated feature of writer, director, and producer, Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson, at this point, is practically a synonym for stylish and distinctive filmmaking. His films are branded by dynamic color palettes, striking symmetry, and broad, sweeping shots. Anderson’s films carry an air of childlike whimsy, regardless of subject matter, and every frame is laid out with the care of a cherished storybook illustration.

“Isle of Dogs” is no exception. The film’s Japanese setting offers ample opportunity for Anderson to truly showcase his style. The color palettes go from rich reds to the very dull and lifeless setting of Trash Island. Throughout the film, the stylings of traditional Japanese ink painting on silk and Kabuki are at play. This is used both as a method of flashback and plot device, a fable being where the story begins, as well as an overall style that lays elegantly over the action.

Anderson admits to being heavily influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa and, while Anderson has gained a few critics for his methods in using Japanese culture and styles, I walked away with a newly rekindled interest in Japanese cinema (and the overwhelming urge to go home and hug my dog).

Isle of Dogs
“Isle of Dogs” | Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

For a brief plot synopsis: Set 20 years in the future in the fictional, dystopian Japanese city of Megasaki, a corrupt and cat-loving mayor bans all dogs to an exile colony (Trash Island). A young pilot, ward of the corrupt mayor, journeys to Trash Island on a quest to find his dog. There he encounters a pack of abandoned pets (and one stray) and, together, they set out on a rescue mission.

The pack of dogs serve as our storytellers and the entire story is built from their perspective. It was a clever decision from Anderson to put the majority of human dialogue in non-subtitled Japanese. The writing is excellent and Anderson’s star-studded cast does wonders with the biting wit. The backgrounds of each dog offer a familiar and sometimes snide look at the roles dogs play in our lives. Chief, pack leader and stray, was particularly compelling:

He is a stray and happy that way. The embodiment of “dog before man.” But we learn of the fact that he was adopted. Understood kindness. Bonded in an odd and unexpected way with members of his new family. But the character also explores themes of fear and aggression in rescue animals. For any dog lover, the story rings painfully familiar.

The tone of the film definitely leans sardonic and Anderson shows, once again, his mastery of sparkling dialogue. But what touched me so much with this script was that, for all the humor and odd philosophy of the dogs, the innocence remained. In every exchange, you believed a dog could feel that way. Loyalty and quirks and odd acceptance of instincts beyond their control. It felt believable, the way you would expect a dog to speak. Difficult to pull off but well done in “Isle of Dogs.”

Isle of Dogs
“Isle of Dogs” | Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

There are many things that this film does well. The characters are unique and interesting. The story goes beyond a “boy and his dog” tale to surprising political commentary and praise of student activism. It’s oddly timely and may be much appreciated for it. The film is a sweet and heartfelt tribute to man’s best friend and the incredible partnership mankind has always shared with dogs. As I mentioned previously, if you are a dog lover, it will be impossible to sit through this one without being overcome with the need to hug every dog you encounter.

My criticisms are few, but do stand out glaringly in what is otherwise a strong film. “Isle of Dogs” opens on an ancient fable. An evil, cat-loving dynasty seeks to stamp out the existence of dogs. A boy samurai sides with the dogs and defeats that evil, establishing dogs as man’s best friend. At several points, in the film, it is alluded to that the story that is unfolding is a parallel to that ancient tale. This is fine and expected, but sincere – until we reach the final act. There is an odd moment at a crucial “change of heart” scene that introduces a cosmic, supernatural element that just seems out of place. Was this intended to go beyond a parallel and into the realm of cosmic battle fought over the ages? Is reincarnation at play here? It’s never explained and just doesn’t fit.

I have offered great praise to the cast and every performance was a treat, with the exception of Scarlett Johansson’s Nutmeg. Nutmeg is the forced love interest of the film and, honestly, just unnecessary. Aside from a very poignant speech about her “showdog” identity, Nutmeg does not offer much and her presence slows down the action (and not in the good, thoughtful way).

Overall, “Isle of Dogs” is a sweet film that is executed with expert precision and beauty. The story would be enjoyable, at any rate, but some of the timelier elements definitely merit the purchase of a theater ticket. I warmly recommend it! “Isle of Dogs” had its North American premiere at SXSW 2018 Film Festival as one of six headlining films.  

Featured image credit: Fox Searchlight

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