If you’ve gotten a chance to see Isle of Dogs in theaters, you may have walked out of it not knowing how to organize your thoughts. That’s sort of what happened to me. The first thing I thought was, “This could never happen.”. It’s apparent after studying history, that many realities start with those exact words. Isle of Dogs was political in many obvious ways as well as many subtle ways, but deep down it had heart that you would want to see from a movie with a title that sounds like “I love dogs.” when you say it ten times fast.
This film has a star-studded cast. Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig and Tilda Swinton all have roles as dogs in the film.
The Isle of Dogs villain is Kobayashi, the authoritarian leader of a Megasaki City, Japan. After an outbreak of disease in dogs, he banishes them to Trash Island in exile. He does this in spite of Professor Watanabe begging him to stop as he is close to finding a cure.
The film completely deserves its 90% approval rating. It’s uncomfortable darkness sprinkled with belly clutching humor is right up my alley. The dog’s interactions with each other and realistic movements really highlight the silliness of dogs. Even though they are exiled to a ravaged island and forced to fend for themselves while sick and starving, they were still everything you’d want from dogs. The main pack that the movie focuses on are beautifully sculpted, and often the comic relief.
The dogs didn’t forget how to sit when told to, and they never forget their relationships with their owners. When the main protagonist, 12 year old Atari Kobayashi and relative of leader Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island, the dogs rally around him. They immediately help him search for his dog Spots, The first victim of the exiling.
Rex (Edward Norton) would casually mention a rumor he “heard” recently about happenings back in Japan, and the others would scramble to ask him how he heard it. This mimicked carefree human gossip, despite the fact that these dogs are trapped with no contact to the world. This pattern happened several times in the film and made me laugh every time.
One major strength and quirk of the film are the themes that thread from beginning to end, and that I came to expect.
The dogs would let out one single sneeze very often in the film to remind the viewer they are still sick. Much of the time, the sneezes come during silent moments or after dramatic pauses.
Another thread throughout the film is a metal piece of airplane shrapnel that stabs through Atari’s head when he crash lands. The metal pipe remains sticking out of his head through the entire film, and is referenced a few times very nonchalantly.
The dogs sometimes use it to question whether Atari’s slowness stems from something other than the pipe jammed into his head. This could be a slight piece on mental illness, although it’s done in a very subtle way.
The film’s main characters have intense strengths, but they do often falter. The main protagonist, young Atari, seems to have intense drive in the beginning of the film. That drive to find his dog, Spots, propels him to kidnap a plane and fly it to the island. After a mix up, and mistakenly thinking a dog skeleton is that of his dog, he gets back on the plane to leave. This is one-dimensional and did not help his cause. When he continues on his journey, he gets distracted by a slide at one point, insisting on riding it, even when his new dog companion Chief tells him they have work to do. This could be considered one of those moments that is supposed to remind the audience to stop and smell the roses even in the worst of times. To me in that moment, it was frustrating. His dog was still out there!
Another character that really let me down is Atari’s actual dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). When Atari finds him, the government has found out about Atari’s rebellion and they arrive at the island to stop him. Although Spots does save them from the police and robo-dogs, (with his modifyed super-dog teeth inserted by the government before his exile), he asks Atari for something surprising. He actually asks Atari if he can be relieved of his duties as his protector and his dog for the reason of wanting to start a family.
Can you imagine if your dog ever turned to you and told you it didn’t want to be your dog anymore? That actually happens in this movie. Horrible! I know.
The brightest star in the film is Chief (Bryan Cranston). He goes from a tough, hardened animal to one who eventually circles back to what it’s like to be a dog. When Atari and the other dogs get separated for a brief period, Chief is the one who remains with him through the toughest stretch of journey. In the end, he proves himself to be an even more loyal canine companion than Atari’s actual dog. Their story of friendship is truly beautiful. He is probably the best character in the entire film.
The use of flashbacks was beautifully done and added a lot of suspense and curiosity to the story.
The film is beautifully, painstakingly animated with puppets and set backdrops. I recently watched an interview where they said it took director Wes Anderson one whole day to animate the simple motion of a dog moving its eyes to the side. It’s amazing to see this type of film in action. it really is an amazing feat and work of art. The stop animation style of the film always blows me away, and Isle of Dogs was no different. The movements, textures and expressions of each character were almost breathtaking to watch.
The story is touching and real, and it will get you right in the soul if you know what it’s like to love a dog with all your heart!
All in all, I couldn’t take my eyes off of this film and I’m so glad Wes Anderson created it. Who doesn’t love an animated dog movie?
Shannon Toohey is Editor-In-Chief of FanFest.com. She graduated from Hofstra University in 2015 with a B.A. in Journalism from the Lawrence Herbert School of Communications. Shannon has been a proud member of the Fan Fest team since 2013. Tweet her in your prettiest bird voice: @shannontoo