The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson tried his hand at stop-motion animation with 2009's delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox. He does it again, this time in a somewhat less kid-friendly way, with Isle of Dogs. Telling a story that is simple in terms of plot points and complex in terms of its themes, the movie absolutely ranks as one of the most ambitious animated features of the decade. You can easily get sucked into its world.

The story is set in Japan, where a virus has infected all the country's dogs. The dictatorial mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has subsequently banished all the canines to a remote island. That includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), the beloved protector and friend of Kobayashi's orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Atari runs off and makes his way to the island, where he meets Chief (Bryan Cranston), a dog who refuses to accept a master. Nonetheless, Chief agrees to help him search for Spots, at the behest of Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a purebreed who used to perform circus tricks. Aiding Chief and Atari in their quest are comical cohorts Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray).

Isle of Dogs is a basic boy-looking-for-his-dog story on the surface, yet there's a heavy sociopolitical undercurrent. Among the ideas explored are the corruption of elected officials, the cover-up of scandals, and the mistreatment of groups because they are in some way labeled as “different.” Having animals as the lead characters allows for such themes to be touched upon without seeming didactic. You can register the weightier thoughts while still enjoying the film's abundant humor and wit.

As always, Anderson brings distinct visual touches to the project. The stop-motion animation provides its own inherent vibe, which the director expands upon via his trademark symmetrical shots, weird little asides, and quirky characterization. One of his favorite things to do here is to have a dog's head in closeup on one side of the frame, then have all the other characters slightly further back on the other side. That creates a sense of urgency, as the approach is typically used when the foreground dog is saying something of particular importance. Intermingling American and Japanese culture is an intriguing choice, too, as it creates a multicultural ambiance that gives the proceedings an extra flavor.

I always have the same reaction to Wes Anderson's films. I like them a lot on initial viewing, yet also get so lost in appreciating the filmmaking technique that the stories can feel a little impersonal. Then, when I see them a second time, I realize that they aren't impersonal at all. The emotional nature comes through more strongly on a repeat viewing. I suspect that will be the case with Isle of Dogs. The movie is so meticulously designed that it's easy to overlook the depth of the human – or, in this case, canine – interactions. Then again, part of what makes Anderson so special is that his work can be appreciated on multiple levels.

Isle of Dogs is thematically substantive and visually exquisite. Backing up those qualities are strong vocal performances. The actors create three-dimensional characters using just their voices. Bryan Cranston is especially good, capably suggesting that Chief shuts others out because he fears what letting them in will bring. Everything works in harmony to create a one-of-a-kind animated feature so stuffed with goodness that you'll need, and want, to see it multiple times.

( 1/2 out of four)

Isle of Dogs is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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