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‘Isle of Dogs’ is a charming, fast-paced delight

| Monday, April 23, 2018

Joseph Han | The Observer

Wes Anderson’s films are unmistakable. If you see a movie with highly symmetrical framing, bright primary color schemes and Bill Murray, your natural assumption would either be that you are watching a Wes Anderson movie or some sort of blatant Anderson knock-off. His films are easy to appreciate, but not necessarily easy to love. Particularly, the director’s commitment to his unique style can keep an audience at arm’s length. In fact, Anderson’s films are at their best in the rare moments when characters’ humanity shines through their veneer of neuroticism.

Anderson’s unique style and aesthetic are not necessarily inhibitors to his style. In fact, his vision invariably generates gorgeous films. “Isle of Dogs” is no exception. Anderson uses stop-motion animation to create tiny sets whose precision provide immersion into a fascinating new world. The soundtrack lives up to its high expectations, with Anderson inserting “I Won’t Hurt You” from The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band with the skill of a two-decade soundtrack veteran.

“Isle of Dogs” starts with the outbreak of a canine-borne disease which threatens the citizens of the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki and causes the city to ban dogs. The story’s main human character, twelve-year-old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin), rebels against the ban on dogs by stealing a plane and embarking on a quest to find his pet among the banished canines of Trash Island. The story concurrently follows both a lovable crew of exiled dogs led by hardened stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) and the humans back in Megasaki fighting to get their pets back.

“Isle of Dogs” mines a charmingly childish premise for deep moments, exposing wisdom and humor that adults will appreciate. Even though the main characters are children and dogs, “Isle of Dogs” doesn’t shy away from depicting slightly graphic violence. Like nearly all of Wes Anderson’s movies, “Isle of Dogs” feels like a merger between a children’s storybook and a Hollywood film. This classic story of a hero and his canine companion also manages to address topics like politics, authoritarianism, fear-mongering and loyalty. Wes Anderson is even able to turn his child-like sense of wonder on a dystopian world, with “Isle of Dogs” glamorizing its world without sanitizing it.

A fair number of critics on the Internet, including Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, have taken issue with the way that “Isle of Dogs” treats its Japanese setting. These criticisms are highly exaggerated. Anderson does indeed incorporate a few stereotypes of Japanese culture into the film — one scene exquisitely depicts the careful preparation of a sushi meal, a sumo wrestling scene is thrown in for little logical reason and stereotypically Japanese music scores much of the film.  However, much of the film reads as a tribute to Japanese culture rather than a caricature. Japan has had a rich cinematic history, and the nation’s well-known aesthetic suits Anderson’s filmmaking style. Perhaps Anderson was little bit shallow at times, but any appropriation that the film could be accused of is mostly benign, and no reason to avoid the film.

“Isle of Dogs” should go down as one of Anderson’s greatest films. It balances plot pacing with aesthetics better than any other film in the director’s oeuvre. Although films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” were hilarious and intelligently structured, they both suffer from brief spells of boring exposition that exacerbate Anderson’s slightly-pretentious style. Through tight plot structure and its unique twist on a classic premise, “Isle of Dogs” stands as the most accessible introduction to Wes Anderson for new audiences. Dogs and children both a have a particular talent for gazing at the world with wide-eyed enthusiasm, and “Isle of Dogs” gives everybody a channel to tune their mind into that frequency.

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