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Movie Review: "Isle of Dogs" Is An Instant Classic

isle of dogs review

Starring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton,  Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum,  Bob Balaban, Kunuchi Nomura, Greta Gerwig Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Lieve Scrieber, Courtney B. Vance,  Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton
Story by Wes Anderson Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura
Screenplay by Wes Anderson
Directed by Wes Anderson

Out of Four
The first thing one has to know about Isle of Dogs is that it is a Wes Anderson film, because if you happen to really dislike Anderson's films, this is really not going to be for you. If you have not ever seen one and have now frame of reference, there's very little that can be done to prepare you for what to expect: this movie is as off-beat as a semi-mainstream animated film can possibly get, and while it's not necessarily inappropriate for kids, it is not aimed at little ones and features some intensity and disturbing moments that may be too much for them. It's also brilliant, beautiful, hilarious and life affirming.

Left to right: Duke (Jeff Godblum), Boss (Bill Murray, Chief (Bryan Cranston),
Rex (Edward Norton) and King (Bob Balaban.)
(Images Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In a dystopian near-future Japan, a dog flu virus spreads throughout the canine population. The authoritarian new mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (voiced by Konichi Nomura), signs a decree banishing all dogs to "Trash Island," ignoring a prominent scientist named Professor Watanabe who claims to have found a cure. The first dog to be banished is Spots (voiced by Liev Schrieber), who belonged to Atari Kobayashi, the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor.

Six months later, young Atari ((Koyu Rankin) runs away from home, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island to find Spots. After a crash-landing, he is rescued by five dogs: Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (Edward Norton, Bob Balabanm Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Cranston, respectively.)  They decide to help Atari locate Spots, although Chief, a former stray, is cynical and jaded, and doesn't want to help a human. Meanwhile, the story of Atari disappearance and crash on the island gets out in the media ("It's a distant uncle's worst nightmare"), and when it comes out that he was out to rescue Spots, he becomes a folk hero to the pro-dog movement, while the government wants to get him back and silence the issue.

Isle of Dogs is much darker than Anderson's previous animated effort, The Fantastic Mr.  Fox, but the gentle sweetness is still there. The deadpan comedy of the screenplay is perfectly executed by the cast (Goldblum and Murray get no end of laughs, as does Edward Norton, who really seems to have found his niche working with Anderson.). But the star performance is definitely from Cranston, who not only seems incapable of phoning it in but brings so many layers to his voice over roles that it's really quite astounding to experience. We are longtime fans of this terrific actor, and he continues to be a personal favorite and one of the best working today. Schreiber comes in a close second as Spots, the best character he's been given in a very long time, and Greta Gerwig (the incredibly talented writer/director of Lady Bird) is hilarious as an American exhange student. Johansson's golden voice is always welcome, and the chemistry between her and Cranston is surprisingly wonderful given the age difference. Harvey Keitel and F. Murray Abraham deliver a knockout extended cameo roles, and narrator Courtney B. Vance is pitch perfect.

The animation style is very similar to Mr. Fox, intricate yet deliberately goofy, and you fall in love many of these characters before they even speak. The only element that doesn't work is a couple of long tracking shots that don;t mix well with stop motion and are a bit of an eye strain, though they are artistically strong. Alexandre Desplat's musical score is utterly unique and inspired, and the collaboration between director and composer remains one of the strongest out there.

All in all, this is easily a ten best of the year candidate for us, and for anyone who loves Anderson's films.

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