'Isle of Dogs' Is a Puppy Treat for Quirky Kids who Love Dogs

Wes Anderson is a filmmaker who’s often been described as “quirky.” It’s true—he is. But he’s more than that dismissive moniker would imply. He’s got heart. Leaving live action for animation on only one other occasion, Anderson’s oeuvres includes Fantastic Mr. Fox. And his upcoming feature Isle of Dogs is certainly one of his most-anticipated and best-reviewed. Heady enough for discerning adult audiences and yet still fun for kids, Anderson does a great job on the tightrope here, mixing anime, sci-adventure, all-out thrills and even a touch of romance, all with equal aplomb.

After an epidemic of infected canines saturates the (made-up) Japanese city of Megasaki, an executive order sends all of the four-legged fleabags to Trash Island where they are exiled like Lepers. But one of those dogs is the pet of 12-year-old orphan Atari (Koyu Rankin) and the so-called “little pilot” is determined to get his dog back. He sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard and BFF, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends, the boy begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire world. When the pooches take on the corrupt government…watch out!

But don’t worry, the story’s not too terribly dark (oh, there is that one bit mentioning suicide…). Thanks to an instantly auditorily-recognizable cast led by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Yoko Ono, and Greta Gerwig, the wit comes as fast and furiously as a just-thrown bone and has all the enthusiasm of a playful puppy.

The animation, which is stunningly beautiful and incredibly astute, helps draw the viewer into this equally fantastical and familiar world. The stop motion technique, while tried and true since the days of the first King Kong movie, is unlike anything seen recently on the big screen. Anderson has said in interviews that both Akira Kurosawa and vintage Rankin/Bass Christmas television specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were his two primary influences… and he nails it! Joined by screenwriters Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, Anderson has created a curio of whimsy that’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Set sometime in a dystopian future, the hodgepodge-yet-artisanal look and feel of the movie really is quite arresting and very memorable. The score by Alexandre Desplat (who just won an Oscar for The Shape of Water and already has one for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) is ethnically inspired with track titles like “Shinto Shrine” featuring wood instruments and Taiko (Japanese percussion). Included also are compositions from Asian films Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel. When it comes to the dialogue, the dogs speak English, the human characters translated Japanese.

The film starts off with a doggone delightful parable presented in the form of traditional woodcuts, which illustrate a time “before the age of obedience.” We then see how cats became the preferred pet in Japanese society, which led to the neglect of dogs. In time, homeless hounds were blamed for a plague-like outbreak of Dog Flu and sent to the offshore dumping ground. Reduced to their most base selves, the canines become curs, feral and fighting for even the scantiest scraps of food in the quarantine zone. But a few folks hold out hope for dog-kind… and with Atari leading the charge there’s a good chance the critters will come back for the win. In fact, the film’s title is a phonetic pun: “I love dogs.” One of the most interesting two-legged crusaders for Fido rights is foreign exchange student Tracy, whose political beliefs and overall look remind one of the iconic Angela Davis.

Isle of Dogs goes off the leash at times—introducing robot battle-dogs, Japanese accents bordering on parody, and the aforementioned convo covering hari-kari—but like a faithful canine companion who slobbers on your new shoes, this shaggy dog story has its heart in the right place. The message espousing tolerance in the face of fear-mongering and xenophobia is easy to read, yet it offers an avenue of hope for us all with its childlike ability to see peace and love at the end of the hero’s journey.

But will kids like it? It probably depends on the kid. Better-educated, more curious children will definitely glean more from the story. Still, it should lead those who don’t know much of its inspirations or origins to seek knowledge of the backstory—after seeing Isle of Dogs you may want to show them The Little Prince so they can see how pilot Atari was conjured. There are many interwoven stories here. Having said that, it’s just plain cool and a fun flick to enjoy in the theater no matter how old you are (in dog years or otherwise).

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