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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

April 16, 2018

Isle of Dogs: Another Strange Masterpiece

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I have been looking forward to this movie for months. Since Isle of Dogs’ first trailer dropped last September, I have waited with bated breath. So much intersected here: not only is it a stop-motion animated film, but it’s a Wes Anderson film, AND it’s a PG-13 animated film. That last one stuck out the most to me. We see family animated films and adult animated films all the time, but nothing in the middle. Now my anticipation has been rewarded. Isle of Dogs takes Wes Anderson’s unique filmmaking style to new heights with a quirky script and lovingly crafted visuals.

Isle of Dogs opens with a brief legend, telling about an ancient war between dogs and the Koboyashi Clan, which is resolved when a young samurai sides with the canines. The film then fast-forwards to the near future, in the city of Megasaki. A combination of snout fever, dog flu and canine overpopulation has turned the citizens against the local canine population. Mayor Koboyashi (Kunichi Nomura) issues a proclamation to deport all dogs to an island landfill off the coast of the city. Six months later, a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in search of his dog, Spots. A group of exiled dogs, unofficially led by a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston), endeavor to help the boy reunite with his lost companion. Along the way, they become part of unfolding a massive conspiracy led by Koboyashi that threatens every dog’s existence.

Right off the bat, I can tell you that this is most definitely a Wes Anderson movie. Wes Anderson has a very unique style when it comes to the movies he writes and directs. I’ve struggled to describe it for years, but I think Isle of Dogs has helped me crack it.  Wes Anderson breaks the rules of filmmaking. Yet, he does so with such passion, and such deliberation, that you can’t help but get sucked in.

For example, let’s look at the writing. I wouldn’t be the first to describe Anderson’s dialogue as “stilted”.  It does not always sound natural. However, it still accomplishes what dialogue is supposed to do. It builds relationships and characters, it creates the right mood. Thus, a story that feels both grounded and fantastical emerges. I mean, this is a movie where a mayor apparently has the authority to revoke passports, where there’s an automated trash delivery tram, where a volcano sparks an earthquake which sets off a tsunami and all three each hit different buildings. Isle of Dogs lets itself be a surreal story, mining it for humor.

That surreal atmosphere bleeds into Anderson’s famous visuals. In filming classes, you are taught basic composition rules: don’t have characters look at the camera. Don’t put your focus in the center of the shot. Don’t have people up against the edge of the screen. Isle of Dogs breaks all three of these rules. The result feels uncanny and strange, and would hinder most other films. Anderson turns it into an asset though. He lets the movie be weird, strange and ridiculous. He turns what would be an obstacle for other filmmakers into a strength.

After all, I can assure you that the visuals of this film are anything BUT amateur. The animation department did a fantastic job on every detail. The dogs’ fur rustles in the wind, water and dust effects can be seen, character motion is smooth and everything carries good energy. Great care was taken and every detail was attended to. There’s no doubt that love was poured into every second of screen time.

On top of everything, the story also carries some very timely themes. After all, it features a mayor using fear-mongering tactics to achieve a political end, for the benefit of a corrupt circle of associates. The concept of “fake news” stretches beyond the antagonist though. One of the running gags within our central gang of dogs is a constant, “Did you hear the rumors about . . . .” Throughout the movie, characters are met with the realization that they only heard part of a story, or even the wrong story altogether. This theme flows around the entire narrative, mingling with the expected “dogs are man’s best friend” theme very well. A lot of thought went into writing this story, and I feel that watching it again will be rewarding.

Isle of Dogs ended up being just what I expected: a unique movie full of charm and quirkiness. It boasts an intelligent plot and great visuals — also, how could I forget a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat? It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Rest assured, I will be back in the cinema to see it again.

 

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com