I am a fan of Wes Anderson, so this review may be biased. I love the way his films are put together and Isle of Dogs is a return to stop-motion animation for the director, having made Fantastic Mr. Fox previously, which I adored. Even though Isle of Dogs isn’t quite as much fun, it’s still a very rich family movie.
The setting is somewhere in Japan where the mayor of the city of Megasaki has banned dogs and exiled every one of them to a garbage island to fend for themselves. As a result of this decree, his own son’s loyal bodyguard-dog Spots (voiced by Live Schreiber) is sent to the island, but the plucky kid comes looking for him and befriends a pack of dogs who help him out. Meanwhile, the anti-dog sentiment in Megasaki has reached genocidal levels and a team of dog-loving students led by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is on a mission to expose the government corruption and liberate man’s best friend.
The cast is excellent, which is par for a Wes Anderson movie. The pack of dogs who help Atari are Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), whose need to lead is at odds with Rex’s devotion to always taking votes. Each actor is a ton of fun to listen to in their roles and the character designs are wonderful, especially Tracy Walker who looks like a riff on Little Orphan Annie. Other stand-outs are Scarlet Johanson as Nutmeg, F. Murray Abaraham as Jupiter and Tilda Swinton stealing each scene even with very little dialogue as Oracle, a dog who “understands tv”.
Once in a while the movie breaks into classical animation to mark a shift in perspective, such as tv broadcasts, but it is mostly stop-motion and more deeply detailed than you might expect (the hairs on each dog sway in the breeze constantly, for instance) and the movie has the usual tone of gentle playfulness that characterizes Wes Anderson’s films, though it does flirt with some dark material, particularly in the third act when the government program of rounding up all dogs on the island and interring them in concentration camps before a final solution (!) to the dog problem is arrived at. If I had a complaint about the film it would be that it is a little overstuffed, story-wise, and runs a bit long, but that’s a minor blemish.
I thoroughly enjoyed Isle of Dogs. I think it’s a great family movie for its cute dogs and earnest message of tolerance and kindness, but also for its relatively sophisticated story and sly humour which will hold the attention of adults. Great fun.