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Isle of Dogs Movie Review

Isle of Dogs Movie Review
Mutter Island

Filled with intricately framed compositions and delicately idiosyncratic characters, the live action films of Wes Anderson often portray actors less like everyday people and more like precious little dolls immaculately posed and stylized on screen. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the director's playfully precise style translates so well to the medium of stop-motion animation. As the format literally enables the director to configure and position every individual moment to twee perfection, it allows Anderson to truly realize the full potential of his immaculately quirky aesthetic. And with his sophomore animated effort, "Isle of Dogs," the filmmaker does just that, coming away with a delightfully eccentric tale of a boy and his pack of four-legged friends.

Following a dangerous outbreak of canine flu in a near-future version of Japan, the government of Megasaki City decides to deport all dogs to Trash Island. Determined to reunite with his exiled pet, a young boy pilot named Atari (Koyu Rankin) risks his life to fly to the island. There, he teams up with a local pack comprised of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) to form a search and rescue party. Meanwhile, a cure for the dog virus is close to being discovered, but the nefarious Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) will stop at nothing to keep the animals away from his city... and his beloved cats.

From the opening shot to the last, Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura craft an adult-skewing storybook adventure marked by perfectly measured whimsy. The journey to find Atari's long-lost dog Spots is full of peril, triumph, and lots of clever canine related word play and observations. To this end, the director's trademark style of low-key comedy is present throughout with some hilariously deadpan deliveries from the talented vocal cast. Japanese characters speak in their native language, though occasional in-movie translations from televised interpreters or other means clue us into what they're saying. Meanwhile, the dogs speak in English, and each member of the ensemble creates a subtly unique and amusing personality of their own.

Cranston's Chief ends up taking the spotlight, and the hardened stray's suspicious attitude toward Atari is juxtaposed nicely against the rest of the "indoor" pack's immediate loyalty to the boy. The gradual bond that forms between Chief and the little pilot becomes the heart of the film, weaving an emotional story about friendship, trust, and letting go of aggression.

Visually, the animation style is simply gorgeous with ornately designed shots and nicely detailed stop-motion models. The characters, both human and canine alike, are all brimming with personality. Facial expressions, in particular, are very impressive, allowing the stop-motion puppets to emote so much through small quirks and gestures. The storybook quality of the images is enhanced by wide compositions that use all of the space in each shot, frequent reframing camera movements such as zooms or push ins, and tracks that emphasize different planes of the image. Other Anderson trademarks, like title cards, voice over narration, and a retro rock soundtrack are also used to great effect.

With that said, there are times when the movie can be a little too precious and affected for its own good (a common yet forgivable gripe for many of the director's films). Likewise, the script has a tendency to rely on fast-talking info-dumps with excessive exposition a bit too often -- though the charmingly stylized presentation of these scenes complements the overall aesthetic and playful tone very well. Some criticism has also been lobbied against the film's depiction and use of Japanese culture and stereotypes, but while I can see where some of these complaints are coming from, I never felt like Anderson crossed any lines.

Transporting audiences into a fully realized stop-motion world packed with eccentric canine characters, ornate compositions, and deadpan deliveries, "Isle of Dogs" offers a whimsically pure distillation of Wes Anderson's trademark cinematic style. Charming and heartfelt, the movie celebrates the enduring bond between man and his furry best friend.

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