Movie review: Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs. “I love dogs.” When we finished watching this stop-motion-animated film at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, I asked my wife what she thought the movie was a metaphor for. It may have been the wrong question.

It was, we decided, a response to a lot of things such as the abuse of power – by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and the manipulation of the masses in a government conspiracy, mechanization, plus a whole lot of other interesting things. Your list may vary.

Still, it was, in the end, primarily about a 12-year old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the mayor, looking for his beloved pet on an island of trash. He meets some amicable, helpful canines, Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the less friendly street dog Chief (Bryan Cranston).

The voice cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as the dog Nutmeg, Tilda Swinton as Interpreter Nelson, and Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker from Ohio, with the dulcet tones of Courtney B. Vance serving as narrator. Plus Akira Takayama, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, and Yoko Ono as Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono.

Interesting to me is that even some of the more positive reviews (91% on Rotten Tomatoes) thought the film was distant. Mick LaSalle wrote: “We stay on the outside, admiring its originality and all the talent that went into it, without ever really finding our way in.” Not our experience at all.

The dystopian visuals are nevertheless beautiful as to make you almost forget how trenchantly political it is. There is taiko drumming at the beginning and the end that we found absolutely hypnotic.

I’m not savvy enough about the Japanese references to ascertain whether director Wes Anderson should be chastised for cultural appropriation. I will note that the female dogs didn’t have as much to do with the storyline.

Nevertheless, we liked it a lot.

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