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Review: Wes Anderson’s style transfers brilliantly to ‘Isle of Dogs’ (Includes first-hand account)

Anthropomorphizing animals has been a common technique in fictional narratives for decades. It allows storytellers to convey tales in a manner that may be more effective or less jarring for viewers… and sometimes, it’s just more entertaining. Writer/director Wes Anderson has focused most of his career on live-action dramas featuring increasingly famous actors and developing a very distinct style, but he now appears to be embracing animation to deliver his unique stories with the latest being Isle of Dogs. Yet if audiences dig a little deeper, they’ll notice many of the same themes as seen in his other pictures — just in a different format.

After an outbreak of dog flu and fears it could spread to humans, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) decrees all K9s are to be exiled to Trash Island. In spite of scientists’ claims of a nearly complete cure, the first victim of this ruling is the mayor’s orphaned nephew’s guard dog and friend, Spots. Within six months, all dogs have been banished and they’ve established a society of roaming packs, fighting for scraps they find in the trash. When “the little pilot” (Koyu Rankin) crash lands nearby, the now master-less dogs are eager to help him — all except for their leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), who was a stray and doesn’t share his pack’s affection for humans. Nevertheless, the group of dogs accompany the boy on his search for Spots, while various K9 advocates on the mainland demand their return home.

In addition to having a stellar voice cast, there are other interesting things happening with the dialogue in this picture. There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that explains the humans speak their native tongue, while all the dogs’ barks are relayed in English. There is an in-story translator who interprets official events, but most other dialogue is left for viewers to guess (unless they speak Japanese). This has an interesting effect on the narrative as audiences are left to infer the nature of some of the characters’ conversations without the benefit of the exact wording.

For someone who’s considered an auteur filmmaker, making the leap to a different medium — in this case, animation — could have a significant effect on their presentation. Yet, Anderson manages to keep more than a semblance of his signature style. From the descriptive chapter headings to the witty, loquacious characters to the underdogs (no pun intended) that drive the story forward, key elements of his work are there. When compared to his first foray into the genre, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it becomes clear Anderson is now establishing a unique style in this medium as well. Similar to his live-action films, the screen is drenched in colour and detail. Moreover, his commitment to the story’s appearance is demonstrated by his decision to use the more laborious, hand-crafted stop-motion style, which fits beautifully with his aesthetic. Finally, there is once again no shortage of well-known actors attached to the picture, lending their voices to the brilliant personalities Anderson has created: Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanbe and Liev Schreiber.

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It’s not easy to maintain a sense of cuteness while telling a relatively dark story, yet Anderson walks this line comfortably. It’s not about to make anyone tear up or coo with delight like a children’s cartoon, but it is fully engaging. The added history of cats vs. dogs that underlies the main plot provides an intriguing extra layer to the tale of friendship and heroism.

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin and Edward Norton

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