Isle of Dogs - Review

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Isle of Dogs begins on a subdued, despondent note that calls to mind the grand storytelling of Anderson's last feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there, the film sets itself apart from every other Anderson film, especially its closest relative, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It is a brilliant, consistently enjoyable film from a director who has made this his brand. 

The first thing I looked for in Isle of Dogs was the Wes Anderson wackiness. For me, this came at the point when the English news translator (voiced by Frances McDormand) is replaced briefly by a student English translator who fumbles over his words. It's a funny, cute scene that didn't need to exist, but Anderson thought to include it, and it convinced me that this late career Anderson is still laughing at the same jokes he was twenty years ago.

Isle of Dogs will be compared to Anderson's previous stop motion endeavor, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a near perfect piece of animation. The style is familiar: Fur bristles in the wind, animals feel real enough to touch, and there is a storybook feel to the entire movie. Where Isle of Dogs sets itself apart is in the visual department, asking the question, what are the limits of stop motion animation? For Wes, there are none. There is a ludicrous amount of technical finesse on display here, and shots move so quickly it is easy to miss the details. There are grand set pieces, massive explosions, and layered landscapes that open wide to the viewer. Each frame is a marvel to behold, and none are wasted. 

Across a two hour runtime, Anderson nails pacing, and never lets the animation style grow old or tiresome. Where Fantastic Mr. Fox tended to drag, Isle of Dogs makes every moment crucial to the story, even if it's just a quarrel between dogs over island gossip. 

There is a lot of gossip, which is one of the funniest recurring jokes of the film; that the dogs exiled to trash island all participate in vicious heresay. Isle of Dogs places a lot on the shoulders of its voice cast for the first hour, requiring acute timing and emotion from its core actors. Bryan Cranston does this the best, as he struggles to understand his violent tendencies as well as indulge in them as Chief, the alpha dog if there ever was one. 

While interesting characters have, and remain, a fixture for Anderson films, Isle of Dogs gives them the backseat to scenery and story. The journey of Atari Kobayashi and the corrupt, cat-favoring mayor of Megasaki (the film's fictional Japanese city) is fascinating and incredibly emotional, as characters like Atari (Koyu Rankin) and Chief undergo serious traumas. Punches are thrown, ears are bitten, and spikes are pulled from heads; don't be misled by the animation style, this is definitely not a kids movie. 

Anderson has often walked a fine balance between humor and emotion, perfecting the mix in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, and Rushmore. In Isle of Dogs, he allows little of both. It is a very funny film, but not as much as, say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which was packed with enough one liners to be a Hollywood action film. Isle of Dogs lets the scenery tell the story, and thankfully, it is amazing. Some of the most creative shots and set pieces I have seen in any film appear here, often too quick to notice. Isle of Dogs may not be terribly funny, but it is a beauty to look at. 

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Isle of Dogs does almost everything right: It tells a well written story with a whole lot of dog-lover emotion, includes meaningful character arcs, and dazzles with incredible technical skill only possible from this director at this point in his career. It is a great film, and one I am anxious to see again. Anderson's best? Maybe not, but it is unlike anything you will ever see.