SXSW 2018 Review: ISLE OF DOGS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

The closing night headliner of the film festival was none other than filmmaker Wes Anderson’s latest film.  This stop-motion animated love letter not only delivers laughs and warms the heart, but it also offers some valid commentary on political corruption and the corrupt’s use of fear to validate questionable agendas.  Anderson and his co-writers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura have created another intelligent animated movie that certainly has Anderson’s childlike heart, intelligence and quirky sense of humor.

The movie takes place in a dystopian future in Japan.  Dogs of all breeds have become sick with a highly contagious canine flu.  Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) of Megasaki City orders an expulsion of all dogs for the safety of its residents.  All dogs are to be banished to Trash Island, a place where all garbage and trash is dumped.  Among the dogs exiled is a loyal security dog named Spots (Liev Schrieber), the beloved pet of the Mayor’s adopted nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin).  Desperate to find his best friend, Atari steals a small plane to land on Trash Island where he encounters a band of dogs led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) who decide to help the boy.

As someone who loves dogs and other kinds of pets and who is a fan of Wes Anderson’s work, I quickly fell in love with this movie.  Anderson, Coppola, Schwartzman and Nomura did a great job with the script and Anderson and his crew have painstakingly done some fantastic work in animating this fictional world and its characters.  The film is Rated PG-13 due to some slightly strong language and thematic material dealing with death, so it probably isn’t as appropriate for very young viewers as was Anderson’s previous foray into animation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  The movie still has plenty of light-hearted and jocular moments that families with pre-teens and teens can enjoy.

Anderson and his casting directors Douglas Aibel and Kunichi Nomura (definitely a multi-tasker here), have assembled a wonderful assortment of voice talents, most of whom are Anderson regulars.  Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum offer some wonderful voice work as the pack of dogs who wish to help Atari.  Akira Takayami gives a wicked, menacing voice to his character Major Domo, Mayor Kobayashi’s right hand man.  Scarlet Johannson, Harvel Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Tilda Swinton also perform outstandingly as more canine characters Atari encounters during his journey.

Greta Gerwig gives a boisterous performance as Tracy Walker, an activist American exchange student who seeks to uncover the government’s corruption regarding its dog policy.  Koyu Rankin also performs well as Atari, the strong and determined kid who will do whatever it takes to find Spots.  Speaking of Spots, Liev Schrieber is great as the character.  However, the real standout voice work comes from Bryan Cranston.  His character Chief proves to be the most compelling of all the dog characters and Cranston certainly doesn’t voice him half-heartedly.

And heart is the key to what makes this movie work so wonderfully.  Sure, the politics might be a little on the nose at times, but it still rings true.  This movie will most undoubtedly please people who adore dogs.  Those who prefer cats might feel that they get a bad rap in this movie, but it is all in good fun.  I know the audience at SXSW enjoyed it very much, and had a great time hearing Anderson and some of his stars discuss the film during the Q & A.  Isle of Dogs opens in theaters Friday, March 23, so everyone will get a chance to enjoy this delightful movie soon.

Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, Kunichi Nomura, Bob Balaba, & Jeff Goldblum after the SXSW ISLE OF DOGS screening

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