Dustin Steinhoff, Staff Writer
“Isle of Dogs” is a charming stop-motion movie about a boy searching for his dog that will catch the viewer off guard with surprisingly grim plot twists and a strong political message that is very relevant in today’s world.
“Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion film directed by Wes Anderson, who has also directed “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” This is Anderson’s second stop-motion film, the first being “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The film takes place in Japan and centers around a boy named Atari who flies a plane to a distant island where his dog Spots has been sent in order to save him. Atari crashes his plane on the island and is helped by a pack of dogs that are (somewhat) led by former stray dog Chief. The film stars Koyu Rankin as Atari, Bryan Cranston as Chief, and Kunichi Nomura as Mayor Kobayashi, with Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, and more lending their voices as well.
Underneath the film’s quirky art style and humor is a very poignant political message. In the film, all of Japan’s dogs are sentenced to a desolate island composed of trash due to a disease spreading through all of Japan’s dogs, with a chance of it spreading to humans. Mayor Kobayashi, an avid cat-lover, runs an anti-dog political platform, enticing the majority of the citizens of Nagasaki to hate dogs as well. The film shows how quickly fear can turn into hate, even towards the most innocent of beings, like man’s best friend. The theme of the dangers of scapegoating and the mindsets it creates are very well done and is definitely one of the film’s strongest aspects.
Another selling point for this movie is how beautiful the film looks. The stop-motion is incredibly well done with fluid and quick motions that work really well. The backgrounds in the film are given a spotlight in the many wide frames shown. They give a good sense of the bleak atmosphere on the grey and brown colored island and the hope that resides in the red and orange colored settings of mainland Japan. The character models also have a lot of subtle touches to them that add to the atmosphere even more. For instance, Atari has a black eye and a metal pipe stuck in his head from his plane wreck, and the dogs that have occupied the island full of trash have spots of fur missing, grime in their teeth, and occasionally a tick ruffling through their fur.
Like most of Anderson’s films, the tone has a melancholy yet quirky tone, with some grim, gasp-inducing scenes that happen quickly and catch the audience off guard. Fellow moviegoers actually let out gasps of surprise at least three times during my viewing. This is due to Anderson’s tendency to make the viewer feel comfortable during a goofy scene or conversation before hitting the viewer over the head with a dark fate for the characters. He’ll then move on without missing a beat, which some viewers may not enjoy.
The most divisive aspect of the film (and Anderson’s other films) is that the dramatic elements of the film come and go very quickly, leaving little time for the audience to react as the film switches scenes. Some may feel like this causes these dramatic and dark elements to not hit as hard as they should and do not allow the audience to fully react to what has happened. However, I find these plot beats to be unique. The fact that these grim scenes come at times you would not expect makes events seem unpredictable and make the viewer feel like the characters are always in danger, rather than telegraphing what is going to happen next with a ton of build-up. These surprising dark scenes are usually the scenes that stick after the end credits roll.
The only real problem I had with the film was the way in which flashbacks were used, because they make the structure of the film a bit messy. They are used to better explain events happening in the current timeline of the story but show up a little too abruptly and end up hurting the natural flow of the movie.
While “Isle of Dogs” may feel like a strange movie to someone who does not know Wes Anderson’s style of filmmaking, it is a great movie with tons of surprising plot points, style, comedy, and heart that should definitely be checked out.