Jan 3, 2019
Welcome back for another stop-motion animation film streaming on HBO, this one receiving a lot of Oscar buzz, and two Golden Globe nominations. It’s one I missed both times it was in the theaters last year. Check out yesterday’s review for “Early Man” (Episode #367) for another stop-motion animation film, or head over to onemoviepunch.com to search on the animation blog tag. You can also check out my review for “Moonrise Kingdom” (Episode #068) for another Wes Anderson film.
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Today’s movie is “Isle of Dogs” (2018), the Fox Searchlight stop-motion animated film written and directed by Wes Anderson, based on a story in collaboration with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. After an outbreak of dog flu, Megasaki Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs from the country to Trash Island to prevent further infection. Now his ward Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) must find his way to the island to rescue his dog, and learns a lot about himself and the mysterious illness along the way. The film has been nominated for two Golden Globe awards, one for Best Animated Picture and one for Best Original Score.
“Isle of Dogs” is the second Wes Anderson film I’ve reviewed for the podcast, although certainly not the second film I’ve seen. I mentioned in my review for “Moonrise Kingdom” (Episode #068) that folks either love or hate his aesthetic. I think that depends on how well folks can identify with the subject matter first, which tends towards middle and upper class white folks dealing with middle and upper class white problems. “The Royal Tenenbaums”, “The Life Aquatic”, and “Moonrise Kingdom” fit that mold rather well. Anderson likes to poke fun at all the white privilege in his films, which I absolutely love, but sometimes it can lead to some odd, perhaps unintended choices, like today’s film heavily borrowing from Japanese culture. My gut reaction was to accuse Anderson of appropriation, but my teenage daughter, who is taking Japanese language and culture lessons from the local Buddhist temple actually set me straight, talking quite adeptly about how Japanese culture has sought to export itself in the last fifty years, and particularly to the United States. So, while I have concerns about who profits monetarily from this film, I also know that culturally speaking, everyone will probably profit from this film as well.
“Isle of Dogs” is both a journey tale and a morality play. It’s a journey tale not just for the lead human Atari, but also for the lead dog, Chief (Bryan Cranston), as both characters grow over the course of the film, coming to grips with their past, present, and future. Atari’s journey through Trash Island is much larger and longer than teased by the trailer, and the cast of characters is much larger than one might expect. Anderson’s auteur status, along with his close collaborations with multiple stars from his previous work, brings in the rest of the ensemble cast, with well-developed human and canine characters, even if they have comparatively limited roles. The journey deals with very serious themes, including a number of moral ideas, but in a humorous way, with a lot of great dog-based dialogue laden with double meanings. The multi-language format of the film, along with the intentional translations to English, takes some getting used to, but ends up working well. And despite my initial concerns about appropriation, the inclusion of various Japanese culture elements was well done.
Wes Anderson, strictly speaking, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I would challenge anyone not to marvel over the incredible stop-motion animation used in this film. Weeks were spent on making even a few seconds possible, especially the incredible fight scenes. You can see how much the animators had learned and evolved since “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, most of which returned for this production, adding even more detail and rotating camera perspectives, some requiring an incredible amount of work, and some utilizing classic animation techniques to do a lot with very little movement. It’s another stunning (and yes, nostalgic) homage to the stop-motion animation of yesteryear.
“Isle of Dogs” (2018) is an incredible mélange of cultures and stories, as developed by Anderson’s close collaborators, and distilled down into a consistent aesthetic by Anderson himself. Anderson calls on all his previous collaborators, plus a few new folks, to voice the cast of characters, and an army of animators to transform it into a beautiful film. Wes Anderson and stop-motion animation fans should definitely check out this film.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
Metacritic: 82 (METACRITIC MUST SEE)
One Movie Punch: 8.8/10
“Isle of Dogs” (2018) is rated PG-13 and is currently streaming on HBO.